31 October 2009

Happy Halloween

Something to scare you on this chilly autumn day:
"We are trying on every front to increase the role of government."
— Barney Frank




(Via Bainbridge)

I will admit, grudgingly, that this is a pretty good line Frank gets in there: "Ralph gets to luxuriate in the purity of his irrelevance."

30 October 2009

George Steinbrenner: Welfare Queen

Need an extra reason to cheer against the Yankees? One can never have too many, after all. Matt Welch details the $1.2 Billion tax-payer subsidy they received for their new stadium.

By the way, Bob Kraft built Gillette Stadium in 2002 exclusively with private money. For that I declare him to be a gentleman of impeccable moral character.

PS
Wikipedia | Robert Kraft

In 2005, a minor international incident was caused when it was reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin had inadvertently taken one of Kraft's three Super Bowl rings. Kraft quickly cleared up the misunderstanding, stating that he had given Putin the ring out of "respect and admiration" he had for Putin and the Russian people.[3] However, Kraft's wife Myra states that the initial claim is true.
Strange. Perhaps I spoke too soon about Kraft's moral character? He may be covering up for a thief, but at least he isn't thieving from me.

Personally I would never say something so nice about a thug like Putin. Of course, I would also never call out a thug like Putin for stealing something like that. Never pick a fight with someone crazier than you are, after all.

American & European Risk Aversion

Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | Why are Americans more risk averse about medicine than Europeans?:

The stereotype is that Americans are more risk-loving and entrepreneurial than the less-rugged Europeans who instead seek shelter under the umbrella of the welfare state. Yet when I talk about the FDA I point out that for many decades (from say the late 1960s to PDUFA in 1993 and perhaps again more recently) the FDA lagged behind its European counterparts in approving new drugs. U.S. risk aversion in drug approvals is especially peculiar since the major scare which increased FDA powers and slowed down approvals was the thalidomide disaster but thalidomide was approved in Europe not in the U.S. Nevertheless, we were the ones who got scared. [...]

I think this is a puzzle. Why has the U.S. government been more risk averse with regard to medicine than European governments but less risk averse in other areas?
I think it's because European legislators generally have to be less responsive to voters. Or to frame it more kindly to the Europeans, our legislators have to be more demagogish. Even for a pretty non-partisan, technocratic process like the FDA, Congressmen know that if some drug slips through and there's a public outcry their heads might roll come November. The average European parliamentarian, and certainly MEPs, probably would face much less backlash from a botched drug approval.

Now it's been a very long time since I studied comparative government, and I'm also generalizing pretty widely, as one must when comparing the US to all of Europe, but this is where I'd lay my money.

We could test this hypothesis by comparing drug approval processes in countries with FDA-correlates which are comparatively more technocratic or more political and responsible to their legislatures, or by comparing countries with regularly scheduled elections to those without, or countries where votes are cast for a party or for a specific candidate. I would also imagine that FDA-correlates would take more risk in countries with proportional representation because any problems would not be as likely to blow back on specific parliamentarians.

Playing basketball like tennis

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | How to improve basketball:

Tim Miano writes to me:
I am a longtime MR reader. I have a hypothesis about how basketball could be much more exciting, and I can't for the life of me figure out why people who are into sports haven't widely considered it (as least as far as I know).

Here is my simple thought: games should be played as best 4 out of 7 periods -- perhaps 7 minutes each or perhaps slightly varied period lengths, 6 - 8 minutes long. Maybe the number or usage of timeouts or foul-outs would need to be fiddled with. Maybe playoffs would be slightly different. But that's pretty much it. The best part of a basketball game is almost always the last few minutes, and it seems like the incentives for exciting play would persist more throughly under this design. Teams would need more endurance and deeper benches, but that seems like a good thing. Other than obsoleting old records and the tradition of the game, I can't think of any downside. Maybe marginal cost v. marginal benefit, à la owners/players wouldn't extract much more money from fans but would have to work harder? Maybe the length of games would vary too much for broadcasters to be happy? But still, a *much* more exciting game.
Cowen is somewhat dismissive, but I think this is brilliant. I venture to say it is the only thing that would make me interested in basketball again. Get rid of some of that lolligagging.

I'd also be interested in seeing a limit on substitutions. I'm not sure if this would increase lolligagging as players tire, or decrease it, as more fit players would have extra incentive to get their less fit opponents on their heels by upping the tempo. Might be worth a try though.

29 October 2009

Dilemma

My adviser just emailed our group asking if any of us have use for an undergrad research assistant next semester. I can't think of anything for this guy to actually work on, but I also can't begin to express how much I want my very own undergrad minion. Grrrr.

More on Landsburg

The Economist | Free Exchange | Thoughts from the armchair
There are good alternatives to insurance. For example, as David Goldhill points out in a magnificent Atlantic Monthly article called “How American Health Care Killed My Father”, we could take, say, half of what’s currently being spent on insurance and Medicare and use it to give each American family close to a million dollars to put in a health savings account. We’d probably want to couple that with insurance for catastrophic events that cost more than, say, $50,000.

Or, less radically (and therefore less effectively, but at least it’s a start) we could restructure medical insurance to look more like car insurance—where nobody asks how you spend your claim check. If you’re diagnosed with colon cancer, then instead of paying $X million to doctors and hospitals, the insurance company would pay $X million directly to you. That way, at least some of us would shop around for better prices and forgo treatments we don’t think we need—lowering demand and making medical resources easier for everyone else to afford.
I think the extent to which Americans have been suckered into terrible financial arrangements should disabuse us of the notion that the typical individual is any good at informing himself and rationally choosing between complex alternatives. And in a world where Oprah can bring Jenny McCarthy on television and convince thousands of households that vaccines are unsafe, I strongly question the idea that Americans have any clue what treatments they actually need, and I'd note that poor health decisions can impose real costs on others.

I wonder, too, why some economists think that it's efficient for households to spend the considerable amount of time investing in the medical knowledge that would be required to make educated treatment decisions. Shouldn't we want to see specialisation? Is a world in which medical costs fall, but households stress over medical texts at night trying figure out which colon cancer treatment they should use really one we want to live in?
(1) The only "poor health decisions" that must impose costs on others are related to communicable diseases. Everything else is society choosing to pick up the tab for other people's poor choices. This is easily avoidable.

Furthermore, this is a conflation of health care and health insurance. The matter of communicable diseases is not only a very small part of our health-care spending, it is mostly taken care of through non-insurance-related means, like requiring school children to be immunized. Even if we kept the insurance regime we have now, or substituted any of the variously socialized insurance-like plans people have been suggesting, people could still choose to forgo any of the various health procedures that you want them to have.

(2) The anonymous Economist author is making one of the oldest and more arrogant fallacies used to support paternalistic government intervention: "Surely we can't trust everyone to choose wisely. Therefore we must not allow anyone to choose at all." This is triple distilled bullshit. I am angered on so many levels by someone telling me that he needs to bind my hands because he thinks our neighbor is an idiot. I refuse to address it further.

(3) The final paragraph is pretty incoherent. For one thing, Landsburg admitted that only some people would take advantage of the ability to shop around, but even that would be a net gain since no one else would be any worse off. For another, you could use this same argument to say that we should have specialization in the choosing of all products. Why make the investments needed to choose your own groceries? We need specialized grocery-choosing bureaucrats to do that for us. Why choose your own car? Let's just have a specialized car-choosing task force.

We need the option of making our own decisions, not only because that's the essence of freedom, but because no bureaucrat, at an insurance company or a national health service, can account for individual preferences. I refer you to The Use of Knowledge in Society for the definitive take on this matter.

In addition, you don't need fancy medical knowledge to shop around for medical procedures any more than you need to be an architectural engineer in order to hire someone to put a new roof on your house. Shopping around is a matter of degree. Perhaps you really dig in and learn about roofing an interview several roofers in depth, perhaps you call around for quotes, perhaps you hire a general contractor you trust and tell him to take care of it, perhaps you just hire the first guy you find in the phone book. Right now when it comes to our screwed up health insurance system everyone is just hiring the first guy they find in the phone book, so to speak.

Introducing a pricing mechanism into health care procurement would not remove specialization, but it would allow people to choose which specialists to trust.

The Armchair Economist is now blogging

Huzzah! His new stomping grounds can be found here: The Big Questions. He is promoting his new book of the same name, which is out next week. It is subtitled "Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics," which sounds exactly like my bailiwick.

This is fine news indeed. Steven Landsburg is as sharp as they come. This is going directly into the favorites folder in my feed reader right now.

I wish even a quarter of the people who read Levitt & Dubner's Freakonomics would also pick up Landsburg's vastly superior work, The Armchair Economist. That's the book that made me realize there was more to economics than intersecting supply curves and fiddling with arbitrary macro variables and playing at being physicists but with worse calculus skills. I think it and EconTalk were the two things that turned me on to economics.

Landsburg has only been at this one day, and he's already got two good posts up about health care and metaphysics. Read them.



Okay, I can't resist some excerpts since I'm here:

So if public insurance is going to provide anything that private insurance doesn’t already provide, it will to have to do it by dipping into general tax revenues—maybe not at first, but surely soon. And that way lies madness.

Once those general revenues get tapped, all discipline goes out the window. With all that cash at hand, it becomes harder and harder to deny a claim. Nobody’s saying no, and the cost of health care spirals out of control.

Eventually you’re left with the health-care equivalent of Fanny Mae or Freddie Mac—an institution with dual mandates to earn a profit (or at least break even) and to serve the public—and therefore an excuse to fail on all fronts. When it loses money, well, that’s because it was trying to serve the public. When it fails to serve the public, well, that’s because it was trying to be financially responsible.
Amen. This is a particular annoyance to me; I discussed it previously here.
It saddens me that support for universal coverage and a public option has become, in many circles, a sort of litmus test for compassion and caring about the poor. It particularly saddens me to hear the president say that “What we face is a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles.” It’s the details of policy that change people’s lives. The moral imperative is to get them right.
Amen again. Spending other people's money has as much to do with generosity and compassion as sending other people to war has to do with courage and bravery.

Arnold Kling blogged about Landsburg's view that there is no bureaucratic efficiency to be gained by a public option, and concludes with this very important question:
Which leads me to a question I have had all along about the public option. Will it have to comply with state regulations? If so, then it will be misleading to talk about the public option, because it is unlikely that the same plan will work in all fifty states. If not, then it is misleading to talk about the public option being on a level playing field with private health insurance.
Shifting gears, I also agree with Landsburg's assessment that Richard Dawkins is a very smart fellow but utterly wrong about God. Landsburg seems to lay out a what may be a Platonic position in that short post, but I need to know more before judging. I like it so far though. I especially appreciate the way he incorporates the very existence of mathematics into his cosmology, and he's certainly right to say that the important question is not "Why is there life?" but "Why is there a universe at all?"

I listen to music

Coffee and Red Bull and such are great, but sometimes I need my energy in sonic delivery systems as well as liquid ones. Here are some recent additions to the playlist I use to ward off that great scourge of productivity, the alluring temptress known as post-meal drowsiness.

Portugal: The Man — Bellies Are Full


The Twilight Sad — Reflection Of The Television


The Big Pink — Velvet


Lucero — The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo


Speech Debelle — The Key

More Pop Art Costumes, Please

This is vaguely freaky and very witty. I would raise no objections to more Roy Lichtenstein costumes in the world.


PS The ubiquitous young ladies who are always hellbent on dressing up as a "Naughty [Fill-in-the-Blank]" are directed to Lichtenstein's "Seductive Girl" for inspiration. (Note to office workers: that link is to a Google image search of a piece of fine art from a respected painter, but the words "seductive girl" are still going to show up in your logs, so be advised. (I f---ing hate that I feel obligated to make these kinds of warnings, by the way.))


(Via Charmed.tumblr)

28 October 2009

From ghouls to Nyarlathotep: Who would win in a fight?

Threat Quality Press | Braak | A Hierarchy of Monsters

Over at io9, they’re doing another one of those “who would win?” voting contests, this time between classic horror monsters. This is, obviously, madness–the general population is ignorant as to the nature and danger of assorted monsters, and consequently their opinions on the potency of those monsters is suspect. This is evidenced by the very first competition: ”Zombie versus Mummy,” in which Zombies won by about 30%.

This is nonsense, and it needs to be rectified. I am going to explain the order that the monsters go in, so that it can be settled. In the future, if your children ask you, “Who would win in a fight? The Mummy or the Wolf-Man?” please refer them to this list, as it will save a lot of time.
Go. Read. It is genius.

I am a complete sucker for taking trivial things and giving them an analysis that is way, way too serious.*

In the comments, Braak also analyzes the Ghost Busters as well as specifies why he left certain monsters off the list. He considers Godzilla etc. to be more natural disasters than monsters, and defeating them is a matter of bringing sufficient fire power to the party. He also left off Giant Squid, because he was focusing on the supernatural rather than natural.

This is a good point he raised when I asked about the Ogdru Jahad:
If the primary interest of the entity is in the destruction of humanity, it gets a lower ranking than an entity whose unfathomable goals happen to accidentally include the destruction of humanity.
Good rule of thumb: apathetic evil is more troubling than antagonistic evil.



* See also Romance: An Analysis.**

** I not only indirectly called romance a "trivial thing" right there, but I also sort-of equated thinking about your relationship and girlfriend to thinking about monsters and demons. Whoops. Sorry, Special Lady Friend.

Trends

Ars Technica | John Timmer | Talk of "global cooling" based on bogus statistics

There's an inevitable problem with trying to find trends in data that is subject to a great deal of random variability: unless the most recent point was a record high, it will always look like there's a downward trend.
Isn't it just as true that unless the most recent data point was a record low, it will always look like there's an upward trend?

Both of our statements are only true with appropriately loose definitions of the word "trend."

The problem isn't even the degree of variability, it's the degree of variability in relation to length of the time period you're describing the trend over.

In Timmer's defense, he does get into the matter of period length later in his post, but that's still a dangerous sentence to put out there as an opening line.

He also says this:
But, as we noted in February, the reent drop in temperatures has been so small that 2008 was still the 10th warmest on record. Other recent years were equally warm or warmer, while the hottest year on record, 1998, was unusually warm compared to the surrounding years. In fact, if you started tracking trends in either 1997 or 1999, you saw a general increase in global temperatures.
So if you cherry-pick your end points you can make your data say whatever you want. Right on.

But let's keep in mind that the only really accurate global temperature records we have start 30 years ago, so saying a year is the 10th warmest on record puts it firmly in the interquartile range, or what I might describe technically as warmish.

"Jesus vs. germs"

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Markets in everything, Jesus vs. germs edition
A company called Purity Communion Solutions was founded in 2007 to market "germ-free products that take the worry out of contracting germs while receiving communion, and ultimately increasing communion participation and church attendance." Purity Communion Solutions already has 375,000 client churches, church supply houses and the like, and its Web site features all sorts of information about the H1N1 virus, as well as products that aim to keep you in church, and keep you healthy. They include an automated host dispenser in gold, silver, or white, as well as wafers infused with wine: "Improved taste and texture" and "eliminates germs, spills & waste."
[Blink. Blink. Aghast silence.]

I'm all for prudent disease prevention, but this rather undermines the community of a congregation, no? "Automated host dispenser?" Really?

Police that Mustache!

The Chap | US Airforce Tries to Clip RAF Pilot's Whiskers

When RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Chris Ball was sent on an exchange posting with the US Air Force in Afghanistan, he was told to trim his splendid handlebar moustache. Under US Air Force rules, moustaches should not extend downwards beyond the upper lip, or sideways beyond the corner of the mouth. Flt Lt Ball's finely waxed plumage measures a full six inches from tip to tip, in true RAF tradition.
I love it.

After a "frank exchange of views" it was determined that the whiskers were in compliance. Good for Flt Lt Ball and his cookie duster.

PS I had no idea The Chap had so much of their content online. For more discussion of mustachios both noble and pedestrian, I direct you to their "Judge my Shrub" feature.

PPS The subject line comes from Generation Kill. Perhaps the best part of that miniseries was Sgt. Maj. Sixta barking continuously about the grooming standard. (Warning: as you may imagine, there is some degree of colorful language in the following.)

Hats

And I Am Not Lying | Jeff Simmermon | Strike the Pose:

Whenever I see a person in baseball hat that’s in any position other than brim-forward, cap-on-scalp, I think the wearer is sending a very clear message. They’re saying, all with the turn of a hat:
I am a proud and defiant member of a subculture that places absolutely ZERO value on intelligence. We place so little value on intelligence that we don’t even value the APPEARANCE of intelligence.
Ha!

Like any good Chap, I have sympathy for hats worn at jaunty angles, but the hat Simmermon pictures has moved way past jaunty and into orthogonal.

Furthermore, there is the matter of the axis of rotation. With few exception, jaunty angles are achieved through roll, and not yaw, of the cover.

27 October 2009

Trial by Wilderness

MSNBC.com | Tired from a hike? Rescuers fear Yuppie 911:

RESNO, Calif. - Last month two men and their teenage sons tackled one of the world's most unforgiving summertime hikes: the Grand Canyon's parched and searing Royal Arch Loop. Along with bedrolls and freeze-dried food, the inexperienced backpackers carried a personal locator beacon — just in case.

In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the steep canyon walls.

What was that emergency? The water they had found to quench their thirst 'tasted salty.'
Jeeeeeeesus wept! You have got to be kidding me.

I have no sympathy for these people. They not only waste our money, they further endanger people who may actually need assistance by using up scarce rescue resources.

The third rescue team eventually forced the four men into their helicopter and hauled their asses out of there because they didn't want to get called out again for these bozos.

Have we learned nothing from Into the Wild? The world is a big, bad place. We've spent several tens of thousands of years carving out safe, civilized places to live so we don't have to deal with that shit. If you want to get out into the untamed places that's cool. I really respect that. But know that you are consciously turning your back on the padded and sterilized and comfortable places. If you can't keep up with the demands of the feral world that is on your head.


Via Tyler Cowen

"The Rabbit Strategy"

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | The Decline of the Rabbit Strategy:
From chapter 5 of the first draft of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids:

... You don't hear the [breeding like a] rabbit analogy much anymore. In part, it sounds faintly racist. But the main reason we stopped comparing people to rabbits is that - at least in developed countries - we rarely get the chance. People today have too much foresight to breed like rabbits. Sure, many babies remain the fruit of impulsive, unprotected sex. Yet these babies rarely have a lot of siblings. If you look at thirty-something American moms who never married, 45% have just one child, and 26% have two; married moms in their thirties, in contrast, are much more likely to have two kids (41%) rather than one (22%). Almost no one nowadays sticks with a rabbit strategy after they have one or two unwanted children.
The facts at the end are from the General Social Survey. If you look carefully at the thirty-something moms, you might notice that compared to married moms, those who never married are equally likely to have 7 kids, and two-and-half times as likely to have eight or more. However, families with more than six kids are so rare (1% of the married moms and 1.6% of never-married moms) that these ratios mean next to nothing. Could availability bias plus the extreme behavior of the tail of the distribution account for the popular stereotype of the welfare mom with an army of kids?
Point well taken about the small sample size of mothers with 8+ children, but surely the GSS provides variances for that data so that we could check statistical significance. (I don't know how to use the GSS interface efficiently, and I'm not going to take the time to learn now.)

Another point: doing some literal back-of-the-envelope calculations, I figure that even if only 1% of mothers have 8 or more kids, they would still be responsible for about 4.5% of total births. Put another way, if only 1 in 100 mothers you meet have had 8 or more kids, 1 in 22 people you meet have 7 or more siblings.

This may be affecting our cognitive biases as well.

"Amazon suspends wine-retailing program"

NY Wine Examiner | Amazon suspends wine-retailing program

For the past two years Amazon.com has been developing a program that would have revolutionized wine retailing in the United States – making almost any wine available to consumers throughout the country. [...]

One of the main reasons why this program has been put on hold is the complexity of wine-shipping laws within the United States, and that fact that the major wholesalers spend millions of dollars on the state level to keep it difficult for the consumer to have access to wine they want at good prices. [...]

Amazon’s program was the first major step toward offering the consumer freedom of choice while still complying with the myriad laws and restrictions on the wine trade in the United States.

Insert sad face here.

As usual, laws nominally designed to protect the consumer do nothing but limit their choices and drive the prices they pay higher while benefiting entrenched, well-connected businesses and bureaucrats. Same old song.

(Via Jacob Grier.)

Some high octane rant from Atomic Nerds

LabRat lays it on thick, and I like it. Really fine stuff.

I especially like what she had to say about global warming being principally a political problem. I have explained to people in the past that I see the problem as a chain from bench-top science experiments, to broader scientific studies, to computational models, to macroeconomic impacts, to identification and engineering of solutions, to political intentions, to actual legislative language, to the actions of regulatory agencies, to the intended and unintended consequences of those regulations. I have decreasing confidence in our ability to get things right at every link on that chain. Even if "the science is settled" that only gets us two or three steps to where we need to be. (And as someone who has studied a decent bit of computational modeling, let me say that it's more of a black art than a science, so we'd be wise to remain humble about our capabilities on that front for now.)

I think the current Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming thing will end up being bad for environmentalism as a whole. It alienates a lot of the conservationist types, like LabRat appears to be, who think that the catastrophism of the global warming crowd is way off the deep end, but still care about the environment. Catastrophic AGW leaves the Izaak Walton League-types in a sort of no-mans land. Because the focus on carbon dioxide sucks the wind out of the sails of other environmental goals a lot of conservation problems which are better understood, more pressing, and more solvable are going unaddressed.*

(* For instance, I'm not one for Big International Accords, but if we're going to have all these grandiose meet-ups I'd much rather have them hammer out an agreement about overfishing in international waters than do more navel-gazing about global warming.)

I believe LabRat happens to be wrong about richer societies destroying wilderness through suburbanization. (Assuming I am reading her correctly, and also not taking that part of the rant too seriously.) Deforestation follows a Kuznets Curve. As societies get rich enough to build suburbs they also get rich enough to invest more capital in agriculture. The increased productivity of farms takes marginal lands out of production. This more than makes up for the land lost to 'sprawl.'

By the way, many other environmental factors also obey a Kuznets Curve, including things like air and water quality, and perhaps environmental bogeyman du jour CO2, though the jury is still out on that. Biodiversity, another topic LabRat is probably right to be concerned about, does not obey this property though.


PS Paul Ehrlich, professional lepidopterist and Chicken Little Extraordinaire, and John Holdren, currently 'Science Czar' to Obama, spent the 1970's urging the West to 'de-develop,' which is a nice way of saying that wanted us all to be crippling poor again. I would prefer we improve the environment by making it up and over the peak of the curve, rather than backsliding into privation and poverty, but that's just me.

26 October 2009

Vaccines

The Money Times | H1N1 vaccine supply falls short of demand

New York, October 25 — As swine flu threatens to grip the nation, President Barack Obama has declared the influenza outbreak a national emergency. The disease is rampant in 46 states and death toll has surpassed 1000.
The annual death toll from flu is ~36,000. Swine flu has killed over five (binary) orders of magnitude fewer people than the "regular" flu. I thought a national emergency was for things like the Korean War, which coincidentally also saw around 36k US and allied troops die. Is this 'emergency' designation because things are still credibly expected to be worse than they currently are, or is this CYA from the White House, or is this just bullshit?



In other flu shot news:
EconLog | Arnold Kling | Data and Dogma

Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer write,
Jackson's findings showed that outside of flu season, the baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher than among those who did, lending support to the hypothesis that on average, healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the "frail elderly" didn't or couldn't. In fact, the healthy-user effect explained the entire benefit that other researchers were attributing to flu vaccine, suggesting that the vaccine itself might not reduce mortality at all.
A basic lesson in AP statistics concerns the differences between an observational study and an experiment. There is a well-known finding that people who get flu vaccinations have lower death rates than people who do not. But this finding is not based on an experiment. It is instead based on observation of people who choose to get shots and people who do not. My hypothesis is that people who get flu shots are more conscientious than people who do not, and more conscientious people have lower death rates. Whatever the reason, the article cites research where what economists would call "natural experiments" show that flu shots do not affect death rates.
I'm not a flu shot guy. I don't actually know if that's is empirically justified or not, but that's where I stand. Admittedly it's a small sample, but all three times I've had a flu vaccine I've gotten quite sick immediately afterward. Perhaps I will re-evaluate when I have munchkins living in my home, or if I live long enough to become elderly and frail. (That is, if Science hasn't made oldness and frailness obsolete by then. Get cracking, Aubrey de Grey!)

Manned space flight is a white elephant.

Ars Technica | John Timmer | Mars can wait; NASA should try landing on asteroids first:

The final report on the future of NASA's human space flight committee has been released, and it concludes that there's a complete mismatch between the agency's current plans and its budget. To get things back on track, it suggests revisions to the Ares launch program and a new set of missions to the Lagrange points and asteroids. [...]

The committee has concluded that NASA now has plans that don't reflect any sort of budgetary reality...

The committee is unsparing in its view of the US manned space program, from the first sentence onwards: "The US human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources." [...]

NASA has also failed to budget any money for the actual act of deorbiting the ISS, although that's probably not the worst of its problems. The ISS has only just reached its full habitation capacity, and further additions are still planned. That means we may end up with less than five years of it operating at planned capacity if deorbiting proceeds as scheduled. The committee, in a fit of understatement, calls this a poor return on investment.
[Emph. mine.]

I'm probably in the minority of science geeks who think NASA should shrivel up. They suck up way too much science funding for my taste.

There are pretty much three things you can get a federal grant for in science: things that kill people (defense/intelligence/security applications), things that save people's lives (mostly through NIH), and everything else. NASA eats up a huge chunk (perhaps the majority? — my data is old) of the everything else pie.

I think space is cool and all, and I'd love for us to know more about it, but there are a lot of cool things we ought to know more about. All the other science in the world ends up being leftovers of leftovers of the federal research budget.

Rule of Law

To pick up on my recent themes of the Rule of Law and my mention of Civ, here's the quote displayed in Civ IV when you discover Code of Laws:
“To bring about the rule of righteousness in the land ... so that the strong should not harm the weak.”
— Prologue to the Code of Hammurabi

Another Cato Podcast recommendation

Another fine podcast from Cato, this one featuring Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock. HE speaks about his efforts as the trustee of three state employee pensions which hold Chrysler debt to remedy the gross disrespect for the rule of law that the Bush and Obama administrations carried out when they shafted senior debt holders. It's both informative and moving. Mourdock gets pretty emotional when he talks about Obama questioning the patriotism of anyone who objected to his shenanigans.

Fallout from Chrysler's Bankruptcy


If you're not listening to Cato Daily Podcast you really should be.

BTW Mourdock is a geologist by training and career. Bully for scientists in government. If we're stuck with having a government I'd much prefer it be staffed by geeks than by lawyers and professional campaigners.

25 October 2009

Sloppy financial databases. Also, Gaussianism.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Sentences to ponder
By enlisting Teradata, a major bank found its credit-card unit was sending pre-approval notices to individuals being foreclosed on by its mortgage department...
Here is the story (gated, Barron's) and I thank John De Palma for the pointer. Here is a brief bit on Teradata.
Wow. Just wow.

Instead of scouring campuses for physics majors capable of handling their Gaussianist statistical models, perhaps banks should invest in a humble DBA with an average dose of common sense and let him clean shop.



PS At current, there are only 50 Google hits for "Gaussianism." It seems it has been coined independently several times. I began doodling the word two falls ago when I was taking a particularly poorly taught course in statistical learning methods. I use it to mean a fetishization of normal distributions because they make analysis easier or more interesting, coupled with a disregard for whether or not the underlying process in actually normal. My professors was particularly guilty of this sin, as was, apparently, most of the financial industry.

Cato Podcasts w/ David Goldhill

Here are two good Cato Daily Podcast episodes interviewing David Goldhill about health care:

American Health Care Kills


Failed Promises in Health Care Reform


I think Goldhill talks a lot of sense, but mostly what I appreciate is that he gets down to the underlying questions in this whole brouhaha. Not "Is this legislation a good idea?" or "What will this proposal do to insurance premiums?" but things like "Why don't we trust prices when it comes to health care? What makes it different than the rest of the economy?"

This is what bothers me as a scientist and engineer about the health care debate (and so many other policy debates). We haven't established our starting points yet. We don't have any axioms or postulates to build our system on. We don't know what the requirements are, or the objective function, or any of the other things that give structure to a decision making process. People are just gung ho about diving in head-first and having at it with the biggest legislative wrench they can lay their hands on. Most of the time we not only lack agreement on the answers to those basic questions, we don't even ask the questions in the first place.

Here are the kinds of questions I mean:
  • Why do we conflate health with health care with health insurance?
  • We put health care spending on an economic "island," isolating it from the the standard consumer & price mechanism. Why? Is this morally defensible? Economically defensible?
  • Why is health insurance so unlike every other form of insurance, covering routine and predictable expenses?
  • If evidence-based medicine and IT infrastructure will lead to such good outcomes and save so much money, why haven't they been implemented yet? Is this symptomatic of deeper flaws?
  • Would more spending on lifestyle improvements like vacation time be more beneficial than comparable spending on health care procedures?
  • Hospital bills seem unmoored from reality. Is this so? If so, why?
  • Why is my dry cleaner better at tracking my shirts than hospitals are at tracking their patients?
  • Why do so many people hate the health care system generally, but really like their own plans?
  • Why do we conflate rising health care costs with rising health care expenditures? Are rising expenditures bad? Are higher expenditures than other countries bad? Is socialization of costs a cause or solution to our problems?
  • Is misfortune in the form of chronic poor health something we must remedy through a social contract? What differentiates it from other forms of misfortune which go unmitigated or partially mitigated?
Some of those questions are about establishing first principles and some are diagnostic in nature, but they all need to be asked and answered. Even if I don't agree with the answers that Baucus or Pelosi or Obama have to them, I want them to be addressed in a rigorous, structured way.

(They also ought to be answered by anybody fighting for the status quo, but the greater burden falls on those wishing to change things.)

Anglicans? No, Donny, these men are nihilists.

This is a take on the Anglican/Catholic venture that I had not heard previously and rings true to me:
bdunbar | Bringing in the sheaves - wholesale

If Episcopal social conservatives who flee across the street to St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church and Fish Fry think they won't find progressive thought behind the pulpit and in the pews, they've got another think coming.

I don't think they are so dumb or naive.

It isn't about gay or women priests.

It is about Clown Eucharist and changing the Stations of the Cross for Stations of Millennium Development goals. It is about taking down crosses that adorn the outside of the church so as not to offend the sensibility of passers by. It's not about women priests but women priests who dress in hot pants and biker boots. Priests who profess that they do not believe in the divinity of Jesus but have no doubts about that Mohammad fellow. And whose Bishop does not see a problem with this, but see the whole thing as exciting in it's interfaith possibilities.

What it is about is the frustration of belonging to a church that does not take the religious thing seriously.

I don't especially care what gender or sexual preference my clergy has. I would prefer they not wear hot-pants in the vestry hall.

I can not attend a church that will not take seriously their own history, tradition, rites, or Deity.
I always considered the Anglicans to be getting a bit silly, perhaps mostly because I've heard Rowan Williams spouting nonsense about a fair number of things,* but I had never heard of all this business. No wonder people are turned off.

I looks like many Anglican parishes, like many other Protestant and some Catholic ones, are in a bit of a trap. They see their popularity waning and the popularity of {miscellaneous secular cultural trends} growing, so they try to incorporate or mimic those secular trends. But their popularity is, to many people, a result of being in contrast to the rest of society. Many people fill their lives with frivolity but still desire a counterpoint of sobriety to that. If they get the same tone at church services they get the other 167 hours a week, what's the point?


* e.g. "Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game." (cite) For a refutation of the Zero-Sum Fallacy which Williams is making, see Coyote Blog.

Executive pay and the Rule of Law

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Gone, gone, gone

At BofA and AIG close to a majority of the top executives whose salaries were to be cut have already left. Nuff said.

'There's no question people have left because of uncertainty of our ability to pay,' said an executive at one of the affected firms. 'It's a highly competitive market out there.'

At Bank of America, for instance, only 14 of the 25 highly paid executives remained by the time Feinberg announced his decision."
I've always loved Thomas Jackson's advice: move swiftly, strike vigorously, and secure the fruits of victory.

AIG executives seem to have a different version: move swiftly, strike vigorously, and secure the fruits of defeat.


Instapundit

GENEROUS PAY for new Freddie Mac CFO. “The government-controlled mortgage finance company is giving CFO Ross Kari compensation worth as much as $5.5 million. That includes an almost $2 million cash signing bonus and a generous salary that could top $2.3 million.” It’s okay to pay him a lot. He works for the government.



Prof. Bainbridge has a very good analysis of this and the hostility to the Rule of Law that has flourished during the Bailout Era. He also points to this David Frum analogy:
Suppose we discovered that during the tense days of September and October 2008, executives at the big banks were ordering lavished catered dinners for themselves at their offices. WE'd all disapprove. Those executives should have been eating sandwiches at their desks! But would it be OK for the government to order the banks to refuse the invoices from the catering company?

The service was contracted by the people who had the legal authority to make the contract. THe contract must be paid, unless the company goes into bankruptcy - at which point all creditors would have to be treated equally, without the government picking and choosing its favorites to be paid first.

What's happening with these executive contracts is the equivalent of bouncing the bills from some disfavored suppliers. It's lawless and it's wrong.



In this instance, Obama is jettisoning the Rule of Law in order to abrogate lawful contracts and punish a few rich businessmen, and because a lot of leftists care for neither contracts nor businessmen, they are happy. This is similar to the way many leftists remained quiet in the wake of Kelo and other expansions of eminent domain, because they distrust the sanctity of private property. It was foolish and short-sighted then as it is now. Though contracts and property are banners most often waved by the libertarian right, they are indispensable to establishing the supremacy of law, and the Rule of Law — universal, general, impersonal, predictable law — protects the weak from the predations of the strong above all other institutions. Leftists may like the outcome this time, but the path of arbitrary governance does not end well for the disadvantaged they claim to speak for.

Civ

The Escapist | Civilization Coming to Facebook

As if there aren't enough ways to screw in time on Facebook already, Sid Meier has announced that a new version of Civilization will be coming to the world's most popular social network next year.
I tend to use Facebook about three minutes a week. (Less now that their iPhone app doesn't work any longer with the 2.0 firmware on my iPod Touch.) I think that may change soon.

Attention to all of my friends who are on Facebook: Consider yourselves challenged.

(Via Popehat)



Two of my favorite things intersect:
Wikipedia | Civilization (series)

Scottish science fiction author Iain M. Banks has noted that he spent much time playing the game (appearing to refer to the first version) and that it was one of the inspirations for the concept of the 'Outside Context Problem' central to his Excession novel - the appearance of invaders or travelers which are so advanced that they are totally outside the society's frame of reference. In an interview, Banks specifically compares this to having a Civilization battleship arrive while the player is still using wooden sailing ships.

24 October 2009

I'm pretty hot stuff

TotalBeauty.com | Top 10 Hottest-Guy Cities

No. 1: Bethesda, Md.

Book smarts? Check. Healthy bank accounts? Check. Good physiques? Check. Few bad habits? Check. The mix of military and government serves the men of Bethesda well. The city is the second smartest, according to Forbes, and a higher than average number make more than $100,000 a year. Bethesda also has one of the lowest percentages of drinkers and smokers in the country, and is in the top percentile of healthy, active and fit people.
Remain calm, ladies, remain calm. The line forms to the left. Please have your 'Application to Date a Blogger from the Hottest City in the Country' signed and ready. Be advised that you will need to defeat The Future Mrs South Bend 7 in single combat to win a shot at my affection, and she is one tough bird.

23 October 2009

Thoughts on Blomkamp and Banks Movies

I had good news yesterday about a possible Fargo Rock City movie. Now I have some mixed movie news:

(1) The good: Neill Blomkamp, director of District 9, is all set to do another sci-fi flick. He's apparently getting a good chunk of creative freedom and a bigger pile of money. I am eagerly looking forward to his sophomore offering. I didn't write up anything about District 9 after Special Lady Friend and I saw it, perhaps because it had been out in theaters for a long time by the time we went. I really like it though. If we're going to make more sci-fi action movies, we could do way worse than things like this. I may have more to say when it comes out on DVD.

(2) The bad: Iain Banks' short story A Gift From the Culture is being adapted into a movie as well. Now I really love Iain Banks and his Culture stories, but this doesn't strike me as a good idea at all. A Gift from the Culture was — I hate to say this — dull. It could have been set anywhere, anytime. A fugitive getting blackmailed has to choose between his friends and his morals. Good enough, but it didn't give me anything more. I think there's too much opportunity that this one comes out half-baked.

Generally speaking, I don't think the Culture stories will translate well onto the screen:
  • The scale is too epic. (It's been called "not so much wide-screen baroque as Imax baroque.")
  • The setting is too foreign for most audiences. (The sociology, the technology, the economics, it's all really far out even compared to most sci-fi.)
  • They often rely too heavily on non-Hollywood narrative structures. (Use of Weapons makes the narrative structure of Memento seem like a chapter book.)
  • It's difficult for most audience to relate to the non-human and non-humanoid and non-biological characters. (Many of the important characters, the AI "Minds" don't have bodies at all really.)
  • The stories are much more about intrigue than action. (Much of the action that does occur tends to happen on the nano-scale time frames suitable to Strong AIs.)
I love these books, but filming any of them would be a truly epic undertaking. Take something like the effort Peter Jackson put into Lord of the Rings and the effort James Cameron has put into Avatar, combine them, and ramp it up several orders of magnitude, and you could pull off a Culture movie.

If you're going to start making Culture movies or reading Culture books, start with The Player of Games. It's the most accessible Culture novel, perhaps because it's mostly set outside of their civilization. It also has a pretty straight-forward narrative format, though there are some good twists at the end. Do yourself a favor if you read it and push through the first few chapters until the protagonist gets off on his big adventure. Things pick up then.

Polling & AGW

Megan McArdle | Polling Mysteries

Also in the WTF category, Pew says there was a fourteen point drop in the number of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that anthropogenic global warming is real. I mean, maybe 45 million Americans spent the last year reviewing the scientific evidence on Global Warming and changed their minds. Certainly, a lot of laid-off workers have soem time on their hands. But this doesn't really seem a spectacularly likely explanation of the phenomenon.

I can only come up with two explanations for this phenomenon: one, that many Americans are happy to embrace a symbolic belief in global warming as long as there is no danger that anyone will do anything about it. The other is that Americans don't know what they want, and also, enjoy messing with pollster's minds.
Here's a third explanation: We modulate our worries to some baseline level. Fear of global warming has been displaced by other fears. Or we only have a fixed amount of caring about problems to do, and in the last year more people feel like they've done something to make the world better (elect Obama*) so they are giving themselves a break about taking on some other problems like the environment. Or we have a set amount of moral righteousness to expend, and now people are using theirs on causes like health care reform or tea partying or economic populism, and there's less leftover for environmentalism.

I'm not explaining this well, but I've got nothing left in the tanks after a grueling week, so a little slack if you please.

I think a lot of people may have something like this going through their heads: "I've already help defeat the existential threat of racism, so I don't need to confront the existential threat of environmental collapse. I've done my part." Or maybe: "I'm working to help the uninsured, so somebody else can work to help the polar bears." They don't think these things consciously, but they may manifest themselves in peoples changed beliefs about whether catastrophic anthropogenic global warming exists at all.

PS Here's Pew's overview of their report, which includes the chart above.

* Updated to add: The first half of McArdle's post is about how people have suddenly soured on Obama over the last month or so, but still, they felt pretty proud of themselves for electing him in the first place. I don't have time to go looking for the details now, but his favorability score rocketed between his election and his inauguration. The act of becoming president did wonders for him even among many people who didn't want him to become president.

Miss Match

Since I've mentioned that unrealistic expectations exist for men as well as women...
Splice Today | Christopher Orlet | What Women Want, According to Match.com

So who is Miss Match's ideal match? Easy, she wants the male model on the cover of Men's Health magazine, assuming he is straight and without flaws and as compassionate as the Dalai Lama. He must be funny, but his humor cannot be overly dry or sarcastic. His glass is always half full, his outlook always sunny, and he is optimistic. He is in great shape, with six-pack abs, though he is not in the least obsessed with his body. If he is not a Christian, he is "spiritual, but not religious." He is financially secure, a leader of men, but he knows family comes first. He has season tickets for the hometown sports teams, but you will never find Mr. Match sitting in front of the TV in his boxer shorts Sunday afternoon watching football and swilling canned beer. And did I say he must love dogs? He is "that guy who can stargaze in the middle of the Ozark Mountain Trail or from the rooftop of Vin de Set."

Nothing ever flusters Mr. Match. There is no obstacle too high he cannot overcome. He never complains, never whines. When life throws him a curve, he knocks it out of the park. When life hands him lemons, well, you know.

He is, of course, a bachelor, but not because he fears commitment or prefers to play the field, but rather because he has been focusing on his career and has yet to meet Miss Match. Or he is divorced, tragically, but he never says an unkind word about his ex-wife. Despite his rough, chiseled masculine good lucks he knows how to be tender and soft. He knows how a woman wants to be treated and touched. Amazingly, he never says a stupid word. And he is curiously attracted to fortysomething girls who jump out of airplanes. [...]

If Freud were to ask me what women want, I think I would have to reply that they want a man that does not exist. In their feverish obsession not to settle, women have excluded perhaps 90 percent of men who, in one way or another, do not make the cut.

[Emph. mine]

(Via Ryan Sager)

Married Priests, Part 2

A clergyman of my acquaintance sends me this astute comment:
A call is a call — and one can hardly imagine that God does not call married people to religious life.
I think that says it well.

He also predicts that female clergy will not be far behind. I think ending clerical celibacy is about as much change as the Church could stomach in one generation, but eventually he is right.

In contrast to the arguments against married priests, I do not understand the arguments against female priests. Women are apparently made of a different metaphysical stuff than men which renders them incapable of performing the same duties and functions? Perhaps I am misunderstanding, but that smacks of silliness and magic to me.



Any comments about the supposed metaphysical difference between priests and men (or Men) remind me of the 'Miracle of Bolsena,' which always struck me as woefully political. However, I miss no opportunity to post an image of the Raphael Rooms, even though The Mass at Bolsena is far from my favorite of those frescoes.


Which is my favorite, then? The School of Athens, as obvious and cliched as that may be. It's a classic for a reason, after all. I think my second favorite is The Expulsion of Heliodorus, followed by The Baptism of Constantine.

A slight edit

Megan McArdle | The Limits of Presidential Power

Increasingly, I feel like Obama and his team are trying to run his office like a community organizing outfit. But this is the presidency, not a political campaign. You don't put your message out through every available channel, you don't go to war on news operations, and you don't threaten groups that say things you don't like. You are now running the whole country, not trying to win a race.

I don't mean this to sound like what I'm sure a lot of my conservative commentators will make it into--some screed to the effect that Obama is a tinpot dictator and a secret communist. I think Obama's longest life experience is as a campaigner someone who has consistently sought power for himself, and so it's natural that this infects his actions as he learns to govern. And I think that, again like most presidents, he is testing the boundaries of his power. But I think it behooves the American citizenry to set firm limits, and slap his hand when he overreaches them.
If America is finally going to wake up and get into the habit of slapping the president, then let's not pussyfoot around with it. If you're going to be slapping people then do it right.

22 October 2009

Huzzah!

The AV Club | The Hold Steady's Craig Finn working on a screenplay based on Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City

The title of that post says it all. I love both Finn and Klosterman, so this is a big old win in my book.

Perhaps a bit odd that they're developing the memoir-ish Fargo Rock City instead of Downtown Owl, Klosterman's novel.

Anyone into 80's rock -- and that's most of my friends -- should really pick up Fargo Rock City, although I think Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is the best introduction to Klosterman overall.

Klosterman's latest book, Eating the Dinosaur, was out on Tuesday.

Digital airbrushing, analog airbrushing, and regular old brushing

I take back everything I said this morning about the perniciousness of photoshopping images. Verily, there is no way modern women can live up to the unrealistic example set in digitally retouched images like these:





Oh. Wait. Check that.

None of those are photoshopped. In fact, none of them are even photographs.

Those are (top to bottom) an oil painting by Alyssa Monks, an (analog) airbrush piece by Dru Blair, and some drawings by Juan Francisco Casas executed with BLUE BALLPOINT PEN.

If people want images of unrealizable beauty then that's exactly what they'll get, with or without expensive software packages from Adobe. There is no reason to arbitrarily restrict artwork which is done in whole or in part digitally. None.

(All pictures via WebUrbanist.)

PS I can't wait to see the moral panic people will whip themselves up into when sub-surface scattering gets good enough to routinely render convincing human skin.

PPS I actually don't think we're going to replace human models with CGI for a very, very long time, even if we are technically capable of doing so shortly. It's just too cheap and easy to put a person in front of a camera and tell them what to do, compared to needing a team of modelers and shaders for a digital rendering.

Photographic Paternalism

Writing in the NY Times, Randy Cohen asks "Should ads using electronically altered images be banned?" and answers that question, just as the Lib Dems in Britain and UMP parliamentarians in France have answered it, in the disturbing and misguided affirmative.

(French MP Valérie Boyer, the leading proponent of such a law in France, goes so far as to say that warnings should be mandated not just on advertisements, but on art photography. Screw you, Boyer. Fear No Art.)

It's misguided because it rests on the notion that a photograph, before being photoshoped, is some canonical and uncorrupted physical manifestation of a real scene. It's not. Even without Photoshop, it's not. Everything about a photograph is the result of a conscious decision by the photographer. A photograph is thoroughly mediated through the photographer, it is not an unadulterated reproduction of reality.

The lighting, the composition, set dressing, make-up and costuming, even unavoidable basics like the aperture and focal length all manipulate the effect a photo has on the audience. This whole brouhaha was stirred up by fashion photography, and that's especially "fake" even before any digital manipulation. Clothes are clamped and pinned and taped onto models to adjust the fit and remove any unsightly folds and wrinkles and sags. That's why everything fits so slim and straight and clean. (Walk around the back side of a mannequin in a store to see a modest version of this.) Are you going to ban those "manipulations" too?

I don't understand the ignorance necessary to think photographic manipulation starts and ends with Photoshop. Look at Ingrid Bergman on the set of Casablanca in 1942:

Certainly no Photoshop used back then, but she still benefits from all sort of "unrealistic" manipulations. Bergman is a gorgeous woman, no two ways about it, but real women don't have the advantage of someone following them around pointing catch lights at them to produce a sparkle in their eyes, or being lit at all times with flattering, soft, diffuse lighting, or getting gently backlit to produce subtly angelic hallow effects.

Why are any digital manipulations considered harmful but such analog manipulations acceptable?

Infuriatingly, Cohen admits that limitations only on digital manipulations to photographs are arbitrary, are an abrogation of free expression, are the beginning of a slippery slop towards regulating all visual presentations, and would probably be ineffectual and then just shrugs it all off. "Sure, here are four unanswered objections to my scheme, but so what?! It's still worth it so I'm not creeped out by overly retouched ads."

Cohen also angers me at the end by saying that this issue is exclusively women's burden. No suit will ever fit me the way it does in a spread in Esquire or GQ, because of the aforementioned pins and clips and tape. I don't get to keep 180 degrees of myself out of the viewer's eye at all times. I don't get to pose in the most flattering ways possible. And let's not mention Andy Roddick's head on someone else's body on the cover of Men's Fitness. Yeah, women get the short end on this stick, but it's not, like Cohen says, "the woman’s burden only." How paternalistic and misogynistic is it to think that only women are weak enough to be swayed by advertising in this way?



I think the standard rejoinder at this point from Cohen et al. is that we should draw the line at digital manipultaion because you can do ever so much more digitally than you can without. To this I will only counter that they should consider what the Soviets were capable of doing with actual airbrushes, or what Thomas Barbèy can do with in-camera editing, double exposures, sandwiched negatives, and all manner of other analog trickery.





Is this misconception about the reliability of analog photographs a result of bad semiotics? I got into an argument in one film class I took because the professor thought photographs/film were more reliable, or more real, than either drawings or digital images. She thought analog photographic processes were indexical, and thus more truthful, than iconic or symbolic signifiers like drawing and digital images. She rested this opinion on the fact that photographs are made by the interaction of actual, physical photons and actual, physical film in a chemical process. She ignored the fact that chemical and physical processes also make digital photography possible. Is silver nitrate inherently more honest than the silicon and boron in a CCD?

Speaking of mental trade-offs...

In my post about trade-offs in the brain I meant to mention a recent EconTalk podcast with cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham on neuroscience and education. He raised an important point: there is often a behavioral trade-off between reasoning and memory, and the two modes of thinking are closely intertwined. The overlap and contrast between them is not well understood, nor are their neural correlates. What we call being "creative" is sometimes using a memory of a previously solved problem and applying it to a new situation, but sometimes it's (perhaps subconsciously) refusing to use a memorized solution and instead inventing a new one. I just wanted to clear up that I think there are cognitive trade-offs, but I am less confident in assertions of neural trade-offs.*

(* To clarify: By 'neural trade-offs' I mean physical limitations. I hear many people say something like "you only have so much brain tissue, so if you're good at some cognitive function, you're probably bad at another." I think the science behind these assertions ranges from entirely discredited to just unsupported one way or the other at present. On the other hand, cognitive trade-offs are largely temporal. It is fairly well established that even the best "multi-taskers" can only pay attention to a very limited number of things at one time. (Perhaps as few as a single thing, depending on the modeling assumptions you make about context switching.) A lot of this is still very open-ended, and a lot depends on the assumptions and language you use to describe your model, but I'm confident in saying that there is a lot more reason to believe in cognitive rather than neurophysical trade-offs.

As a further aside, part of the reason that problem is still left unsolved is because pinning down what attention is, and how to model it, and how to even describe it, is a tricky business. We all pretty much agree whether you correctly remembered a phone number or can see how many kittens there are in a picture, but what does it mean to say you are paying attention to something?

That difficulty is further compounded because a lot of the scientific efforts on this front come perilously close to being ... gasp! ... philosophical in nature, so many scientists shy away from in-depth theories of attention as being too soft to deserve rigorous study. Attention butts right up against consciousness, and consciousness is dangerous territory for a scientist to get involved in if they want to be considered serious. There's still a lot of work on attention being done (including by yours truly, and rest assured, I will get to the bottom of this matter!) but it's a tentative business.)

Anyway, it's a good podcast and covers a range of topics. This is also a solidly non-ideological episode for any non-libertarians who shy away from EconTalk. I especially liked the discussion of math education. Willingham mentioned that a remarkably high percentage of sixth graders don't understand what an equals sign means and tend to think it means "put the answer here" rather than "these two quantities (however they may be expressed) are equivalent to one another."

I also agree that one of the fundamental problems in education, and something we sweep entirely under the rug, is that we can't agree on what an education is actually for. Is it for getting a job? For personal fulfillment? To strengthen the polity? To make the world a more just place? Is knowledge its own goal?

Wicker Art

On my post last week about Borna Sammak's video art installation at a Best Buy, I mentioned that people are rather afraid to buy sculpture because just by having a sculpture in their homes they are going out on a limb and making a bit of a statement that hanging a painting or print or photograph doesn't make.

I think people really want artistic, 3D objects in their homes, they just don't want, you know, sculptures. I think that's why people buy all manner of decorative wicker baskets they never put things in, and decorative candle sticks and hurricane lamps that are never used for illumination, and decorative seagrass balls — whatever those are — like the one from Pier 1 pictured at left. Seriously, look through the "Accent Pieces" section of Pier 1 and tell me people aren't itching to fill up their homes with 3D aesthetic things. (I don't find any of those things particularly aesthetically pleasing, but whoever buys them must.)

These non-functional wicker "accent pieces" reminded me of some beautiful bamboo sculpture I saw at the TAI Gallery, in Santa Fe's Railyard District, two years ago. Perhaps the way to get sculpture into people's homes is to execute it in materials they are already comfortable with. It's a much shorter hop from that decorative wicker basket to a woven bamboo sculpture than it is from the wicker basket to a steel assemblage. Some of the pieces at TAI were almost basket-like in form, but most looked more like visual aids for a high-dimensional topology class. The following three examples are by Honma Hideaki, Honda Syoryu, and Torii Ippo, respectively.




TAI also displayed some excellent tilt-shift photography by Naoki Honjo, which I previously mentioned here.

By the way, if you're doing the gallery scene in Santa Fe, leave some time for the Railyard in addition to the more popular Canyon Road locations. The Rail Yard is a lot more manageable in scale, and it had some really interesting and fun contemporary stuff going on, as well as more restaurants close by and a small but very interesting contemporary museum, SITE Santa Fe.



(I'm going out on a limb with the following, be advised.) I think part of the issue which biases people towards painting and away from sculpture is also price, which I think is related to the ability to make cheaper, limited edition print runs of paintings to subsidize the cost. Sculptural works seem rather more one-off (excepting cast bronzes?), so it needs to be sold more dearly. What can aspiring sculptors do about this? Perhaps get down with fab-labs and various other small-scale, computer-controlled manufacturing to enable batch production. I'm a little hesitant to recommend this because so much fab-lab tech makes things out of epoxies and resins and waxes and such, and those materials look too cheap to command big prices. Maybe in the future that won't be such a problem for a home workshop. (Or maybe it already isn't and I just have old information.)