Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What counts as interesting?

I was talking to a friend and they said they think the standardized test writing prompts tend to be interesting. I don't know how common that sentiment is. My guess is that for people with a background in philosophy or who tend to think things out, the topics are very bland and trite. (This will sound extremely condescending. It is, but I don't judge people's worth on intelligence.) For people who don't think very often or study English (or something like that), I can see why they are interesting.

Let me explain with a few examples I grabbed from the web:

"Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?"

This is a scientific question. I don't think anyone has ever studied it so who the hell knows. Is it an important question? Not really--the question doesn't propose any programs for solving the problem if it exists. The key here, though, is that this isn't the kind of issue you can expect to make any progress on by writing down a bunch of "case studies" (e.g. anecdotes).

"Should schools help students understand moral choices and social issues?"

No one thinks schools shouldn't. Understanding moral/political issues are important and we do it in English and social science classes. The one thing that makes people feel uneasy is that schools can't avoid inculcating a certain moral perspective on issues. But teachers' views and peers' views are going to socialize students anyway, that is unavoidable. I think this one was settled a long time ago. The real question is to what extent should schools tell people what to think when discussing the issues. That is interesting but society has settled more or less on a consensus even there: schools should teach things nearly everyone believes, and if there is any controversy whatsoever, not discuss it. Maybe an interesting question that could come out of this is "What percentage of society has to disagree with a moral claim before it becomes unacceptable to teach it as accepted in schools?" (For example: what percentage of Americans have to find gay marriage acceptable for it to become acceptable to write about gay marriage in history books the same way we write about civil rights for blacks.)

"Do newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, the Internet, and other media determine what is important to most people?"

This is another scientific question. You can find out by running experiments to test to what extent changing the paper someone reads changes their priorities. I believe the answer is that, as anyone would expect, it changes their views a little bit. (There are two studies I can think of: one that studied the impact of Fox News on voting behavior and one that studied the impact of having a conservative or liberal paper deliver to the door.) The real question here is how much impact media has on values? That is going to be very hard to estimate and isn't even properly framed to start with. But whatever it is, writing some anecdotes about how watching CNN made you want to join the Peace Corp doesn't get us anywhere. But that's what the SAT wants . . . I think. (Comment: What do they mean by determine anyway? Do they mean if I ran a regression I'd get an R^2 of 1, as if nothing else beyond media socialized people's values. I'm just assuming they couldn't possibly mean that.)

GRE prompts can be even worse. My prompt was, in so many words, "can the ends justify the means?" That one was settled a long time ago. The answer is obvious.  Even more probing version of the question  are obvious (e.g. "when do the ends justify the means?" Answer: When the net outcome is better than the next best alternative.) I have a feeling that a lot of people in English departments never found out that that question was settled hundreds of years ago.

What does literature teach people?

I've probably written this introduction before, but it's necessary. When I read fiction and watch movies, I have fun. I love movies. But I rarely learn from watching films. I'd say that probably only 1 out of every 100 movies or books is really intellectually stimulating the way even bad non-fiction is.

A lot of people, however, claim that some movies (the kind that win Oscars?) are "smart." I've never understood what that means. The classic novels and plays we read in high school are also supposed to be "deep" or "smart" but I don't understand why. Let me respond to obvious counterpoints if that sounds incredibly ignorant.

First, I'm not stupid. I understand that Othello is about jealous and that Romeo and Juliet speaks to the fickle and passion nature of love. I know one of the lessons of Hamlet is that indecision can be a (tragic) flaw. But none of those ideas are new. Little kids know jealousy is bad. Teens usually feel love long before they read Shakespeare and anyone who ever spent time agonizing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream understands Hamlet. So when I say those plays aren't "smart" what I mean is that their themes are things everyone already knows--and if you already know it, you aren't learning it. (Movies have the same problem: Star Wars is about the problems of relying too much on technology; The Hurt Locker shows how war changes people; Inception shows us experience is more important than reality. I don't think any of that is ground-breaking. Also, the Neo-luddite pretensions of Star Wars are the worst thing about it.)

Now not all movies and books have trite themes. Some are kind of novel. Before I read Brave New World I'd never thought much about the relative value of truth and happiness. If you've never read "Politics and the English Language," then 1984's commentary on the government's use of language to control the populace is interesting. Avatar has the most innovative idea I've seen in a movie: the planet can think. It's trees are connected like neurons and collectively they constitute analogous to a brain. Far out. That said, I think all of these only count as borderline "smart" art. Brave New World is completely wrong: happiness is vastly more important than the truth. It's completely implausible that a government would ever try to control people through language the way it does in 1984, which is way over the top in general (and vastly inferior to Orwell's more measured essays for that reason). And of course the implication in Avatar is that we need to protect our planet--but our planet can't think, which Cameron might have been trying to imply.

So my question is this: Can anyone point out something novel they learned from fiction? What brilliant insights did I miss in Shakespeare? What did you learn from Moby Dick? To count it has to be something someone reasonably acquainted with philosophy isn't familiar with and has to be scientifically correct. (Ruminations on pseudo-psychology don't count.)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Oreo Quotes of the Day

As part of an Oreo advertising campaign in China:
Others organized Oreo-themed basketball games to reinforce the idea of dunking cookies in milk.
Chinese people got hops.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom:
Kraft [...] partnered with McDonald's to bring the Oreo McFlurry (already on sale in many countries) to a few McDonald's locations during its yearly Great Tastes of America promotions. 
Yup, traditional home cookin' like the Oreo.

Read more

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Philosophy Problem Sets?

I don't teach philosophy classes and I probably never will. But if I did I would make one big change: add problem sets.

The basic idea is that I'd lay out some arguments and ask student to reduce them to premises, or ask students, given some premises, to draw conclusions using the theories presented in class. Most of these would be trivial, but that's ok because most philosophy classes already require a trivial amount of philosophy and a non-trivial about of composition.

The rationale is that philosophy, like math or economics or computer science, could and should teach people problem-solving methods. If you have an ethical dilemma you can use the theory of utilitarianism, and your priors, to figure out the right thing to do. (Or you could use evidence rather than priors, but that takes you into the realm of science.) In some ways this paradigm only really applies to ethics, but I think problem sets could be developed for epistemology that would be esp. relevant for science majors.

Here are some examples:

1. Jeff Sachs says that donating $100 billion in aid to Africa is the right thing to do because it will lead to economic growth. Assume he's a utilitarian and diagram his argument:

Answer: Donating $100 billion to Africa will increase African incomes. Increasing African incomes raises utility. (Hard part: There is no better use of the $100 billion than donating to Africa.) Therefore, we should donate $100 billion to Africa.

2. (Mathematical problem) There is an island with 3 people. They agree to be utilitarians but can't agree on which utility function is better: U1 = x + y + z or U2 = xyz where x, y, and z are the individual utilities of the three people. Calculate the utility for each (x,y,z) below and discuss which system is more egalitarian. (Does either function help reconcile utilitarianism and Rawlsian conception of justice?)

Answer: U2 is more egalitarian. Graph them, it's interesting!

3. Prof. White decides to write a paper on the causes of war expounding democratic peace theory. He then makes a table of all the wars fought in the past 100 years and categorized them into wars between democracies and others. He says the data show (don't worry about how) democracies are less likely to fight wars. What is a major problem with his research plan?

Answer: He came to his conclusion before seeing the evidence. When he categorized the data he may have been tempted to categorize countries as "democracies" and "not" in such a way as to make his hypothesis hold.

4. Ann believes in virtue ethics. She wants to cultivate the virtue of charity. A local beggar asks for $5 to buy booze. A local businessman asks for $5 for research on a new vaccine. Who should Ann give the money to? Who would a utilitarian give the money to (assume the new vaccine will save many lives)? Does virtue ethics make any sense to any rational person? (Hint: The answer to the last question is no.)

Answer: Ann should give the money to the beggar, that is charity. Investing in a business is not charitable. A utilitarian would give the money to the businessman, who would use it to make products that satisfy needs (e.g. demand for health care) because it will make the world happier.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Offensive and Defensive Rebounds

Some statisticians treat offensive and defensive rebounds as equally valuable when evaluating NBA players. I don't see the logic. If I'm a player and I fail to get a defensive rebound, odds are (something like 70% chance) that someone else on my team will rebound the ball so the value of the rebound was 0.3 possessions. If I get an offensive rebound, then I created a possession that would have only been created about 30% of the time, so it's worth about 0.7 possessions. Theory says offensive rebounds are a lot more important. (One caveat: the kind of player who is available to get a lot of offensive rebounds may set few picks, create few of his own shots, and take few shots and thus draw fewer defenders. So offensive rebounds might be correlated with other bad, but unmeasurable attributes.)

Defense of the equivalence base it on regressions. The theory is, I guess, that the regressions are showing an implicit correlation between offensive rebounding and negative attributes (discussed above). Another theory, which is my guess (without looking closely at the data) is that defensive rebounds are overvalued because they are correlated with good defense (low opponent FG%), which is also unmeasured. If that is the case defensive rebounds are overvalued and that's why the equivalence shows up in the regressions.

Friday, November 19, 2010

One more time . . .

This is the best essay even written, hands down.

If you haven't read it five times, then you haven't read it enough.

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

Read it once for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a week. Then read it again.

This is satire

While pensively pondering recent applications of the neo-constructivist gender studies literature to Title 9, it dawned on me that the racial dynamics theorized by Post-Colonial Oppression theory explain the popularity of American football in the United States.

In American football there is one position, the quarterback, that leads and others that follow. The quarterback is prescribed, by the traditional institutional framework of the game, to be white. The other (black) players are commanded by the white who barks orders in codes, reminiscent of the supposedly by-gone era of slavery. Is there any doubt that American football evolved as it did as a replacement for the latent desires of bigotted Southern rogues to oppress the "negro species?"

Note: Someone who read this pointed out that football was developed and became popular in the New England, not the South and that in the South blacks were not allowed to play football with whites until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s. In other words, my theory doesn't make a lot of sense in light of the evidence. Fortunately, I'm an English professor so evidence is not in my lexicon.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Dark Knight Rises Female Leads

I don't think I wrote this on the blog, but it's my strong suspicion that the studio forced Christopher Nolan and co. to name the next Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises." It's a terrible name, but the inclusion of "Dark Knight" in the title clearly identifies it as a sequel. That's what execs want. I hope one day they retcon the name to The Caped Crusader.

Rumors are spreading that Nolan is looking to cast two female leads, one as (presumably) Catwoman and the other as a replacement for Rachel Dawes. My picks at Anne Hatahway to replace Rachel and Naomi Watts to replace Catwoman. I think Tom Hardy is best fit as either Black Mask or Harvey Bullock. I'd like to see DiCaprio as Black Mask and Hardy as Bullock but I think there will only be one villan besides Catwoman . . .

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Peyton Maning - is the sun setting?

Peyton Manning is hands down the best player in NFL history. He is set to break every important record in the history books--career passer rating, consecutive starts, touchdowns, adjusted yards per attempt, even adjusting for the era he plays in. But Manning shines more on subjective indicators than objective. His dedication to the game--to film study, perfection in practice, and to strategy are what make Manning a legend. I love sports. I love the way players like John Elway can played with reckless abandon.* I love the way players like Cal Ripken show up, prime every day.** I love the way competitors like Tim Tebow push themselves and their teammates to play better.*** But there is nothing I love more than the Colts no-huddle offense and Manning's pre-snap routine.

That said, the sun may be setting on Manning's storied career. Younger passers with better targets and more mobility and starting to usurp his throne. No one throws the deep ball like Philip Rivers and the Chargers. Running quarterbacks (Young and Vick) are finally starting to make progress. Drew Brees is setting a new standard for accuracy that, perhaps, even Manning can't match. Manning is left to throw to a depleted receiving corps plagued by injuries and butterfingers. Manning makes them look good, but he has limits. Did we see the last MVP season from Manning last year?

I don't think so. I think he'll win the MVP this year. If the Colts beat the Patriots in a week and if the Colts win the AFC South then Manning will take home his 5th trophy. But the sun is starting to set and it's time to look back and appreciate what a great run it was. The showdown on 11/21 may be the 10th and last meaningful Brady-Manning showdown.

* - Manning is willing to lay it on the line when necessary, or at least was in his earlier days. The first touchdown he scored in the playoffs was a scramble.
** - It goes without saying that Manning is the Iron Horse of football.
*** - But no one pushes his teammates harder than Manning.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Falcons vs Ravens

Roddy White pushed the Raven's defensive back on his touchdown grab at the end of the game. It might have been an acting job but it looks pretty clear cut.

The refs need to grow a pair and throw the flag when a superstar breaks a rule. Anyone remember the hold at the end of the 2003 Colts-Patriots AFC Championship game?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rick Reilly Quote

Rick Reilly is the best sports writer on the planet--yes, even better than Bill Simmons.

Here's an instant classic:
In fact, now people are trying to take away BCS-conference wins this season [Boise State has] already earned. Robert Smith, one of ESPN's college football analysts, said recently, "I'm trying to keep an open mind about all this. But I'm not so sure if Boise State plays Virginia Tech today, they beat them."

I'd hate to see Smith on The History Channel. "I'm trying to keep an open mind about all this, but I'm not so sure the Allies win World War II if they fight today." 
I lost the link.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Legacy of Randy Moss

There used to be a debate about whether Randy Moss was--or would one day be--the greatest receiver of all time. I think this year closed the book this that debate.

Randy Moss will never be Jerry Rice.

It's actually a good story. Moss was a freak, a naturally talented wide receiver with huge hands, blazing speed, 6'5'' stature AND the ability to leap. Rice had below-average just about everything, but a legendary work ethic. What does that say about the value of directed practice?

I'm not so sure the conclusion is fair though. Rice played in the West Coast offense before defense knew how to cover it. He played for two of the best quarterbacks of all time. His numbers are that much better than Moss's. I think they are better--even when you adjust using your priors for the time period, coaching and teammates. But even if Moss had better numbers most people would point to Rice's rings and maintain that he was the best. Moss made his teammates worse--look at the debacle with the Vikings this year--while Rice made his teammates better. I don't know how true that is. It's a good story. But if the Patriots won Super Bowl XXII and Brad Childress didn't let the Vikings go down in flames, and Moss remained Moss, wouldn't that argument fall to pieces?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Double Standards and Finance

A lot of people on Main Street wonder how people on Wall Street can manipulate people the way they do and think nothing of it. The standard explanation is that it's about money: people on Wall Street are greedy so they do immoral things knowingly to get more money. That is certainly part of the story but I think it's a smallest part then people think.

The bigger thing is that institutions shape ethics. What we think is right or wrong depends in large part on the role we are playing. If we are playing the role of businessperson we apply different standards of right and wrong. We treat ourselves by the standard of that role, not by the normal standard of right and wrong. (We do account for other people's roles a little bit, but not much.) On Wall Street the role of a trade, esp. a bond trader, is to manipulate other people for financial gain. For instance, you could manufacture synthetic CDOs so you can sell CDS to hungry hedge funds and then dump the CDOs on some unwitting mutual fund manager, make a tidy profit, and who gives a fuck about all the grandmothers who had their 401ks in the fund. That isn't immoral. Finance is a zero sum game. Someone has to lose. So it's ok to do what needs to be done to win the game.

In that example it's hard to believe the person selling CDOs doesn't understand that what he is doing is wrong. He made that security specifically so that he could sell it to a dope, didn't he? I don't think so, based on anecdotal evidence.

Here is a similar example. Suppose that there is a food stamp program in New York City. It's common knowledge that you can get food stamps if you are living below the poverty line and you can use them to meet basic nutrition requirements. As it turns out, a few restaurants owned by rich businessmen donated to the mayor last campaign and food stamps actually can be used to buy any kind of food--even prepared meals or wine. It also turns out that if you go to the food stamp office, anyone is eligible to get the stamps as long as they wait in line. This is a closely guarded secret though, because if it became widely know that the mayor made these changes he'd take a beating in the polls because everyone agrees they are horrible ideas. Everyone can also probably see what the rules were setup that way: now those restaurant owners tell their best customers to go get food stamps then bring them there for expensive meals that don't cost a time since the city pays the tab.

I talked to someone about something completely isomorphic to that scenario and they couldn't understand what was wrong with a rich person taking the food stamps and using them to buy a nice dinner while the city foots the bill. I think it's a general problem, from talking to rich people, that they tend to be pretty ignorant of all the mechanisms they use to ensure the playing field isn't level in school and at work, and use that ignorant to maintain the illusion that their "success" as they define it is based on talent. A prime exhibit of this is all the rich people at Harvard who think they are actually "Harvard smart." (Maybe they are of above-avearge intelligence. But to get into Harvard on merit, e.g. be "Harvard smart," you need to be 1 in 1,000 or rarer. If you had any comparably smart peers in high school--nearly all of them did--you almost certainly aren't "Harvard smart.")

Friday, November 5, 2010

Quote of the Day: MIT Edition

The great thing about MIT is that it's driven by ideas.

But the bad thing about MIT is that not matter how awful your idea is, someone will be excited about it as long it involves technology and your elevator pitch includes buzzwords like "leadership," "entrepreneurship," or "sustainability."

(If you have a good idea that can't be summarized in an elevator pitch, doesn't involve technology, and doesn't use buzz words, it might get ignored. I wonder how J-PAL ever got approved?)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Is stupidity Dangerous? - Part II

Here is an example of a horrible argument made by someone who I think wants to be taken seriously.

Global warming is going to make the earth warmer. Let's take that as a fact. The result is that there will be less arable cropland in 100 years. This will increase the probability that poor countries reliant on farming fall into chaos. The U.S. will be less secure because these failed states harbor terrorists and commit genocide and other actions that draw U.S. involvement. 
So the U.S. needs to do something about global warming.

There is something that jumps off the page about that argument that is a real sin. But I don't think enough people are trained to see what it is. Thankfully, I've beaten it like a dead horse on this blog so I'm not even going to state it.

But beyond the main problem, the argument also fails to correctly account for benefits.

If your argument about policy is coherent you should be able to turn it into a list of costs and benefits and assign each benefit a distribution of value and a distribution of probability that seems reasonable. That is your argument and you are just using words to dress it up to make it readable. But the two forms should be equivalent and you should always be able to turn one into the other.

Here I don't think the person who made that argument really thought much about the values of the probabilities of the benefits they are talking about (i.e. the benefits from averting a terrorist attack). Why do I think that? They imply that agricultural-based economies will be common in 100 years. But no one thinks that considering the rate of global economic growth.  They never mention their assumptions about the discount rate, which is critical over a 100 year horizon. And they suggest that P(supports terrorists| failed state) is non-trivial, which I don't think is reasonable.

Is stupidity dangerous? - Part I

I was talking to a friend about why I don't like people who study serious topics but don't really care whether they get the right answer to the question they're asking.

When I write it, it sounds so ridiculous that it's hard to believe anyone would do it. So I'm going to write one blog on how it happens and come back to the question of whether it's dangerous in the next blog.

Here is the key fact. It's usually harder to tell if your argument is correct than to make a correct one. It's hard to think up proofs in math, but it's much harder to check whether proofs are right. It's easy to give an opinion on a philosophical topic that is logically coherent. It's harder to check an argument for consistency.

This isn't always the case. It's easier to check if a solution (x,y) to a system of equations is correct than to find a solution, and it's easier to check the dates of important historical events than to remember them.

But in general, where arguments are concerned, it's easier to make a correct argument than to verify the correctness of one.

The result is that there are a lot of people who are capable of making correct arguments (and, also, incorrect ones) but can't verify is there argument makes sense. They understand enough about logic and cost-benefit analysis and regressions to weave some evidence together, but not enough to just the evidence on the whole for themselves.

In Washington these people are tasked with writing briefs and memos and sometimes giving presentations on topics, and they give them. But since they are incapable of assessing their arguments, and often most of their audience is equally incapable (their bosses, the voters in congress are often less informed than they are!), sometimes bad arguments spread.