30 April 2010

Spill, part 2

Let's consider this oil spill situation systematically, with an eye towards information and statistics.

What did we know before the spill happened? We knew that oil rigs fail with some probability p>0.

What have we learned as a result of this spill? We may have learned that p is higher than previously thought.

What actions should we take? If p was too low we should adjust it upwards, and then re-evaluation any decisions we previously made on the basis of the value of p.

Note that depending on what prior estimates of p were it is also possible that p is still a good fit for our expected failure rates, and we shouldn't take any action in light of the spill.

(An example: You expect a lightbulb to burn out in your house every 1000 hours. A lightbulb burns out. Do you need to adjust your expectations by lowering the expected time between failures? Maybe, but not if it's been more than 1000 hours since the last burn out. And not if it's been less than 1000 hours, but not enough less to lower the mean time between failures under 1000. It's very possible that this one burn out, by itself, doesn't tell you anything new about your true lightbulb failure rate distribution.)

Let's assume that we adjust pmarginally upwards, and therefore also adjust marginally upwards the expected cost of drilling. If you already thought the benefits of drilling in American waters didn't outweigh the cost, the new information does nothing for you. If you already thought that the benefits of drilling far outweigh the costs, the new information does nothing for you. The only way the new information is relevant to you is if you thought the benefits just barely outweighed the costs, because maybe now they don't anymore.

Of course then you have to ask all sorts of other questions. Will new drilling platforms be safer than old platforms? If we don't drill here will somebody else drill somewhere else? What is the safety of platforms elsewhere? Do we care as much about spills elsewhere as we do here? What is the elasticity of supply and demand for the sort of oil produced by these wells? And on and on.

My point isn't that this is evidence for more drilling, merely that it isn't much in the way of evidence either way. One data points like this doesn't tell us much, whether we're talking about industrial disasters, terrorism, crime, medicine, whatever. There aren't any broad, new conclusions that we can reach after an incident like this unless we also answer all those other questions.


The American Scene | Pascal Emmanuel Gobry | Spill Baby Spill

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has given rise to a small meme whereby people juxtapose images of the spill with the McCain/Palin campaign’s (now in?)famous slogan “Drill baby drill.” The implication is clear: this oil spill shows that the policies covered by “drill baby drill” are wrong, even reckless.

Here’s the thing, though: if you think this oil spill means “drill baby drill” is wrong, I assume this means you have a fabulous super secret plan to build a petroleum-free society? Because if you don’t, then your position boils down to “Oil spills are ok as long as they don’t happen near Americans,” which is pretty much the same thing as “Let them eat cake.”
Well said.

phones: boooo

boing boing | Mark Frauenfelder | The telephone was an aberration in human development

Rick Webb: "The telephone was an aberration in human development. It was a 70 year or so period where for some reason humans decided it was socially acceptable to ring a loud bell in someone else's life and they were expected to come running, like dogs. This was the equivalent of thinking it was okay to walk into someone's living room and start shouting."
Oh sweet Jesus yes. I couldn't agree more.  I really hope we're at the end of that period, but I'm not so sure.

It's not so much the telephone that's the problem, it's that we've somehow developed this bizarre societal expectation that you must answer your phone whenever it rings. How did screening your calls become a rude thing to do? How did we come to the conclusion that phone conversations must happen if only one party consents? Why do so many people answer their phones just to have short conversations that amount to "I can't talk now, I'll call you later."? Why not just skip the explanation and call them later?

Side note: I had to tell two different guys in the library today to take their phone calls outside. That's sadly typical, despite the building being festooned with "no cell phones in the library" signage. What was weird was that rather than going to the cell-phones-allowed entryway, both guys ended their calls within seconds and went back to what they were doing. What could possibly have been so important that they needed to discuss it in a library, yet so trivial that they could wrap things up on a moments notice and then proceed to ignore it for the next hour or so?

29 April 2010

Three from Eric Hoffer

Three gems from Hoffer related to my earlier post on salt:
Absolute power corrupts even when exercised for humane purposes. The benevolent despot who sees himself as a shepherd of the people still demands from others the submissiveness of sheep. The taint inherent in absolute power is not its inhumanity but its anti-humanity.

The Ordeal Of Change
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.

Reflections on the Human Condition
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Absolute power turns its possessors not into a God but an anti-God. For God turned clay into men, while the absolute despot turns men into clay.

The True Believer

"The Making of 'Ephemicropolis'"

by Peter Root:

(Bigger versions available on Vimeo.)

I get a combination of Sarah Sze and Tom Friedman from this, and that's a good thing since they're two of my favorites.

Check out his other stuff. His Space Invaders reminds me even more strongly of Sze. The German Bunkers series is quite clever as well. This one is my favorite:

It's the Salt

Occasionally when I come across something like a Newsweek or a Time I flip it open to see how many paragraphs in I can get before I close it in disgust.  This week I got through one sentence.

From their "The Index" section in the 3 May 2010 issue had this item 65% of the way from awful to awesome:
Salt: it makes food taste good, but it's killing us, so the FDA initiative to reduce our daily intake shouldn't be demonized as a "nanny state" measure.
That doesn't make any sense.  Just because a rule is good for you it doesn't make it any less nanny-ish.  I'd concede that a lot of nanny state rules are actually good for people.  The problem isn't that they're bad, it's that they're intrusive, coercive, ham-handed, authoritarian, presumptuous and meddlesome.  Paternalism doesn't stop being paternalism if it's good for some people any more than it stops being paternalism if the proposal has an even number of vowels in the title.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

While we're on the topic of salt you should read Jacob Grier's post.  He knows what he's talking about, especially when it comes to food, taste and the food industry.  Many good points there, but the only one you need to believe this FDA program is going to be a gong-show is in his conclusion:
As demonstrated by its actions against unpasteurized dairy and its threat to ban menthol cigarettes, the agency places little value on consumers’ choices when they conflict with regulators’ own assessments of acceptable risk. There’s no reason to believe the interests of regulators and consumers will be aligned on salt levels either.
The FDA is the Aunt Agatha of the federal bureaucracy: it crushes choice as surely as she crushed nephews.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Grier links to columns by John Tierney in the NY Times from February about the utter ambiguity about the effect of salt in our diets. In the first he says "That’s the beauty of the salt debate: there’s so little reliable evidence that you can imagine just about any outcome. For all the talk about the growing menace of sodium in packaged foods, experts aren’t even sure that Americans today are eating more salt than they used to." The second leads off with "To salt or not to salt? To regulate right away or conduct more research first?" It appears the Obama administration — he of the "reality based community" — has chosen the regulate now, research later option. So much for policy guided by science and facts.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Like most other problems (if indeed salt is a problem) this one will be solved by technology and not government.

PepsiCo, who I have always been told is some sort of evil multinational corporation bent on profitting from the obesity epidemic, and only one step above drug dealers pushing in school yards, has developed a way to grow salt crystals with a higher surface-area-to-volume ratio. This means they can put less salt on their chips and have them taste just as salty.  Wow, a corporation responding to consumer demand by creating healthier products.  I didn't those existed outside of Randian fantasies.
OhGizmo | Andrew Liszewski | Lay’s To Restructure Salt Crystals To Make Their Potato Chips Healthier

PepsiCo (who owns Frito-Lay, who makes Lay’s chips) researchers have developed a proprietary, and of course patent-pending technology, that allows them to reduce the amount of sodium in their chips by about 25 percent “with no impact on taste.” Research shows that standard cube-shaped salt crystals only dissolve about 20 percent of the way in your mouth, leaving the rest of the cube to be swallowed and dissolved later on in your digestive tract, where you can’t taste it.

But working with scientists from all over the globe, PepsiCo’s research team have found a way to restructure the standard salt crystal, making it dissolve more quickly in your mouth where it’s actually tasted. So you’ll need less of the stuff to produce the same salty flavor we all know and love. Apparently since the restructured salt crystals are still made of good ol’ sodium chloride, once they’re dissolved they’re no different than regular salt, so FDA approval isn’t needed. However, it will still be at least a year before the new salt starts being used in the company’s products.
Via GeekBrief

Library of Congress, Twitter & Gopher

When the L of C announced a couple of week ago that it was going to archive every message on Twitter lots of people were asking why? To me it was pretty obvious: because they can and it got their name in the papers. The storage requirements aren't that tough, the cataloging is simple (essentially: don't bother and just have your partners at Google roll out a basic plaintext search for you).  Meanwhile it generated a ton of press and made the Library seem hip and relevant rather than dusty and boring. Potential academic value is irrelevant: it's a PR no-brainer.

If that seems a little cynical of me, ask yourself wether the L of C will bother to archive the entirety of gopher. It's also a valuable historical record, the technical requirements are ridiculously trivial, but it won't generate any glowing press. My money is on them not bothering.
boing boing | Cory Doctorow | All of Gopherspace as a single download

In 2007, John Goerzen scraped every gopher site he could find (gopher was a menu-driven text-only precursor to the Web; I got my first online gig programming gopher sites). He saved 780,000 documents, totalling 40GB. Today, most of this is offline, so he's making the entire archive available as a .torrent file; the compressed data is only 15GB. Wanna host the entire history of a medium? Here's your chance!
There are some plans to potentially host this archive publicly in the manner of archive.org; we'll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.

Finally, I have tried to find a place willing to be a permanent host of this data, and to date have struck out. If anybody knows of such a place, please get in touch. I regret that so many Gopher sites disappeared before 2007, but life is what it is, and this is the best snapshot of the old Gopherspace that I'm aware of and would like to make sure that this piece of history is preserved.
Download A Piece of Internet History (via Waxy)

"We're all kings now"

Via Katherine Mangu-Ward, the trailer for Matt Ridley's latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. I'll let it speak for itself, but I do want to note that not only is the average (or even below-average) Westerner better off that the Sun King, we have it better than kings and emperors and presidents did as recently as 50 or 100 years ago.

28 April 2010

"History of the Sky"

Ken Murphy's "A History of the Sky"

I'l like to see this done with a fish-eye lens to get some more context. And if he does get around to doing an entire 365 day series it would be nice to sync them up to show the progressing of dawn as the year goes by. I can't really tell how the start times are offset in this demo.

Via Planetary Folklore

Two sentences, sans context

The Sports Economist | Victor Matheson | A Country-wide Exaggeration

Apparantly, Deloitte has managed to invent about 40 countries. All of which, of course, happen to be big fans of Rugby.
Of course.

Oh noes, advertising!

Planetary Folklore: Billbored

This anti-advertising stuff is so worn out. "Woe is me, ads present beauty I can never attain myself and I am driven into fits of consumerist binging."  I've been hearing that Tyler Durden song and dance since I was seeing Lucky Charms ads between episodes of Duck Tales.

The rant in this "billbored" in particular is so specious.
The spectacle of advertising creates images of false beauty so suave and so impossible to attain that you will hurt inside and never even know where the hurt comes from, and in all pictures now the famous people have already begun to look lost and lonely
As if I don't go to the art museum and hurt inside from the unattainable beauty of both the works on its walls and the beautiful things represented in them.

As if I don't walk into the library and ache at the desire to just spend all day everyday enjoying the gems on its shelves.

What does any of that have to do with marketing?  We all want things we can't have and marketing has nothing to do with 99% most of it.

How non-introspective do you have to be to see pictures of things you like but can't afford and not realize that's where your longing for stuff comes from?

All the pictures of famous people depict them as lost and lonely?  All of them?  Because I'm going down the "style" folder of my feed reader* and I'm not seeing much if any lost or lonely.  I'm seeing plenty of bemused.  Some exasperated.  A fair share of wry.  Some demure (mostly from the ladies).  Various sorts of I'm trying really hard to make it look like I'm not trying at all to look like I'm trying to look a certain way in this picture.  I'm not seeing any lonely or lost though.

(* Yes, I have one of those.  Get over it, people who know me in real life and find this amusing.)

Oh, and let the record reflect that this Billbored project claims to be a reaction to the billboards put up for the upcoming British election.  Has anyone ever seen a campaign sign and then decided it was an opportune time to rant about spectacles of impossible beauty?  It would be a better world if campagin materials reasonably provoked that reaction.


Step 1: Arnold Kling claimed "predatory lending" is a non-issue.
What about predatory lending? As I understand it, the idea of predatory lending is to saddle the borrower with an expensive mortgage so that you can foreclose on the property and sell it at a profit. How many times did that happen? Have you read of a single instance in the past three years where the bank made a profit on a foreclosure?
Step 2: The Economist::Democracy in America blogger M.S. called him out on that claim here.
In other words, predatory lending isn't about lenders trying to get their hands on people's houses anymore. It's about lenders convincing people to take out big mortgages, so they can pocket the fees, and then passing the mortgage along up the food chain, until somebody gets stuck with it. Probably you and me.
Step 3: Kling responds here, doing a very admirable job of defending his position.
Is it preying on the borrower to make a bad loan? Not so much. The borrower gets a free option. If the house price goes up, it doesn't matter whether the borrower can make the payments or not--the borrower can sell the house at a profit. If the house price goes down, the borrower loses his down payment, plus moving expenses, plus a ding on his credit rating. As down payments approached zero, the total down side of this was pretty small.

The "prey" of the predatory lending in recent years was not the borrower. It was the investor. Investors turned into suckers. I don't feel sorry for them. If you want me to feel sorry for the borrowers, you have to convince me that they lost more than I understand they did.
As I said, I think Kling defends himself perfectly well, but I want to highlight two points in M.S.'s piece that he skips over.

First of all there's this idea that mortgage originators issue loans and then throw them all on the conveyer belt where they get amalgamated and aggregated and sliced and diced until an MBS pops out.  M.S. says mortgage originators "don't care whether the buyer will ultimately be able to pay, and they don't care how much the house is really worth, because by the time of any foreclosure, they'll be long gone."

If they don't care if the loan ever gets paid then it's awful hard to sell the loan up the ladder to the next guy. It's no different than any other supply chain. Did the guys who were next in line — Fannie Mae, Countrywide, etc — get a little soft in their diligence? Yeah. Did they suffer from being on the wrong side of an information asymmetry? Yeah. But they were big boys. They knew (or damn well should have known) what kind of fire they were playing with. They conducted a lot of audits and honed a lot of standards. It's not as simple as just originating a loan and then passing the buck to Fannie.  Obviously there were a lot of lenders with a lot of different standards, but it was rarely as simple as "here buddy, have a huge loan, I don't care if you ever pay it back."

Secondly there's the notion than originators tricked borrowers into taking out bigger loans than they could afford to pay. I'm sure this happened. Quite a lot. But I'm also sure it happens on the car lot and at the elctronics store and on sales floors of all kinds everywhere. Salespeople are always trying to talk their customers up above their initial price range. But just like buying a used car or a new TV, it's the customers' responsibility to say "no, thank you, that's more than I want to spend."

It is not the loan officer's responsibility to watch out for you. In fact the only person with that responsibility when the rubber hits the road is you. You are on your goddamned own. Welcome to life as an adult. Now try to stand on your feet and step lively avoid getting eaten by tigers. Good luck.

(Jesus that last paragraph makes me feel like the other Jeffrey Lebowski, but it needs to be said. I'm not trying to say people shouldn't try and help each other, but at the end of the day you're all you've got.)

27 April 2010

Simon & Depression

Bryan Caplan has a post a couple of days ago about Julian Simon's experience with depression.  A lot of it echoes with me.  You all are commended to read it.  Here is the conclusion:
Overall, though, Simon's personal odyssey boosts my already vast admiration for him. Most depressives accomplish little other than spreading their misery to the people around them. Simon, in contrast, was an incredibly creative and productive scholar despite his inner sorrow. For much of his life, he didn't feel much of the good in the world, but he saw it - and helped many others see it as well. When he saw a chance to help others overcome the same demons he'd faced, he took it. What a guy. I never met you, Julian, but I miss you.
"Despite" — or perhaps because of?  Some proportion of depressives are able to channel their depression into increased productivity, retreating into their work, like Simon appears to have. (I have been able to only in certain periods of my life. Most of the time it has been a disaster for my productivity when untreated.) I am sure numbers and studies exist for this effect, but I have not seen them. I imagine this is a small subset of the depressed population, but I would like to know more.

ABC believes Jenny McCarthy is a valuable source when it comes to medicine

Ars Technica | John Timmer | Why is the news media comfortable with lying about science?
Well they're pretty comfortable lying about everything else, so why not science?

Hyuk hyuk. But seriously folks, Timmer has a very good point.
A recent review in the journal Pediatrics examined the incidence of digestive problems in children with autism. It concluded that there was no clear evidence that these problems occur at higher rates among those with autism, and absolutely no evidence that dietary interventions help autistic children. What the authors did suggest is that autistics may have dietary issues at the same rate as the regular population, but have difficulty communicating them; therefore, changes to diet can significantly improve their behavior.

It's a complicated message, which really requires a credible and authoritative source to convey. ABC News responded to that requirement by turning to actress Jenny McCarthy, who (predictably) complained that doctors weren't "listening to our anecdotal evidence." McCarthy has a long history of dismissing epidemiology, statistics, and all the other evidence-based tools we use to make public health decisions, so ABC News knew exactly what it was doing by giving her a podium. In essence, the message it sent was "we will intentionally undercut the best available science using a celebrity." Calling that message irresponsible grossly understates the problem.
What kind of bullshit complaint is "doctors aren't listening to our anecdotal evidence?" She admits it's only anecdotal evidence, and yet she wants it to take precedence over real evidence.  What kind of producer lets that empty-headed shit on the air?
If a news organization had put words in the mouth of a political figure, there would almost certainly be a firestorm of controversy. The same would occur if one had turned to a Hollywood star or sports figure for comment on, say, a Congressional Budget Office report. When it comes to science, however, the response seems to be limited to a few outraged bloggers. It's difficult not to think that there's a double standard involved in the complete indifference to accuracy when it comes to scientific information.
I actually feel that way when most news organizations interview politicians as if they are experst on the topics they legislate on. Politicians are experts only at getting elected. Asking someone like Chris Dodd about finance is useless.  I bet some of his aids could give you well-informed opinions, but Dodd's job is to be professionally popular, not to be an expert on anything.

It's worse with celebrities, but even that isn't limited to science.  Why should anyone care what Brad Pitt or Bono thinks about international development?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

I'll take this opportunity to dredge up one of my posts from the archives about Prince Charles' vacuous opinions about agricultural genetically engineering.  Why anybody cares what the British royal family thinks about anything other than crumpets is beyond me.

The State and Society

The Independent Review | David Henderson | From “Porous” to “Ruthless” Conscription, 1776–1917

Progressivism is, in part, the belief that citizens owe a duty to the state and that the state has the right to use coercion to exact the payment owed. [...]
And that's reason #1 I part ways with Progressivism. A free citizen has zero filial or feudal duty to the state. I have responsibility to my own conscience, to my family, and to my neighbors. The last of those may extend to encompass "neighbors" in the whole of human society, but there is no special responsibility that ends at those neighbors on this side of a political border.  Furthermore the state is not a legitimate agent of society, so my duty to society is not transitive to the state which claims to represent it.

Note though that I part ways with Conservatism in exactly the same way: I do not owe my state military service, I do not owe its symbols or leaders or employees any special piety, I am not bound to respect it's legislation simple by virtue of them being my home nation's legislation.

Henderson backs up his claim with several quotations from early Progrssives, including this cringeworthy one.
Herbert Croly, who wrote The Promise of American Life and helped to found
The New Republic magazine in 1914, was one of the leading figures in this new ideological movement. He put the Progressive view more bluntly: "A democracy organized into a nation, and imbued with the national spirit, will seek by means of experimentation and discipline to reach the object which Tolstoy would reach by an immediate and miraculous act of faith. The exigencies of such schooling frequently demand severe coercive measures, but what schooling does not?" ([1909] 1965, 282-83).
That last line should go up on school walls everywhere just to make it explicit exactly what American public schools entail.

"They did not want to influence the vote [with facts].”

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Please Don’t Tell Us the Facts

Remember all that BS about the Obama administration only being ruled by facts and science? This is a mythology at the core of the progressive movement, that it is possible to have a wise dictator who uses the heavy hand of government coercion only for the best interests of the country, driven only by science and not by political influence.

This is of course a crock. [...]

But the myth persists, even in the face of obvious counter-examples, like this (emphasis added):
The economic report released last week by Health and Human Services, which indicated that President Barack Obama’s health care “reform” law would actually increase the cost of health care and impose higher costs on consumers, had been submitted to the office of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius more than a week before the Congressional votes on the bill, according to career HHS sources, who added that Sebelius’s staff refused to review the document before the vote was taken. “The reason we were given was that they did not want to influence the vote,” says an HHS source. “Which is actually the point of having a review like this, you would think.”

The analysis, performed by Medicare’s Office of the Actuary, which in the past has been identified as a “nonpolitical” office, set off alarm bells when submitted. “We know a copy was sent to the White House via their legislative affairs staff,” says the HHS staffer, “and there were a number of meetings here almost right after the analysis was submitted to the secretary’s office. Everyone went into lockdown, and people here were too scared to go public with the report.”

In the end, the report was released several weeks after the vote — the review by the secretary’s office reportedly took less than three days — and bore a note that the analysis was not the official position of the Obama administration.
Wouldn’t want to influence a vote with actual facts.
This fraud is going to end up costing us more than whatever fast ones the Bush administration pulled with intelligence reports about Iraqi NBC weapon capability.

It's time for a good hanging.

[Edited: Or a firing squad. Whatever. Can't a guy make a hyperbolic reference to executing a white government official or some of her underlings of unknown identity — not to mention race — without people thinking he's alluding to racism?]


Threat Quality Press | Braak | Slow News Day

I want to start a gym that’s like a superhero gym. It would have crazy obstacles courses in it instead of squash courts, and the personal trainers would be able to teach you kung fu or boxing, and instead of ESPN2 on every god-damn fucking television, we would just show Batman and Bruce Lee movies. It will be called Badass Academy.
Ha! That would be awesome.

It should have a hackerspace-type workshop attached so people can build supergadgets. A real superhero shouldn't be buying his kit off-the-shelf, he needs to make his own.

26 April 2010

"Stairway to Lenin"

Via TJIC, an excerpt from Zbigniew Rybczynski's "Stairway to Lenin"

Government Employee of the Year

Via Coyote Blog:

I guess I'm the weirdo at the library today

I picked up a copy of Humpday from the library this morning, and the dude at the circulation desk sneered at me with a look that said "what kind of pervert movie is this, and who do you think you are checking out this kind of thing from a public library where kids go?"

Granted, the cover art of this DVD is a little... well see for yourself.  I don't find it scandalous, but it's obviously no Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

After getting the dirty look I wanted to tell the guy, buddy, I got this from YOUR library. Don't look at me like I'm some weirdo; you all are the ones who stocked it. Take it up with the collection librarian or something.

This isn't an isolated incident. I've gotten the same thing four or five times, most recently from a collection of Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows comic strips.

Sure, Frank Cho likes to draw some busty ladies, but it's a comic strip that ran in the Washington Post, not a publication known for putting out vapid dirt.  Accept perhaps for E.J. Dionne's op-ed column.  BAZINGA!

I jest, I jest.  He's actually damn right about Arizona's new immigration laws, for instance.  I'm with Radley Balko that the state Tea Party association supporting this law and asking Joe Arpaio to be their keynote speaker is szichophrenic insanity.

I know this is hardly the most intellectually stimulating post, but what's a blog for if not complaining about people after letting the opportunity slip in real life?


Cactus Kev's Poker Hand Evaluator

This doesn't really fit into typical SB7 content, but I found it really interesting.
Cactus Kev's Poker Hand Evaluator
A while ago, I decided to take a shot at writing a poker hand evaluator in the programming language "C". There are already numerous evaluators out there, but I had an idea for an algorithm that might be faster than anything already out there. The basic concept is to write a routine that would take a five card poker hand and return it's overall "value". This is extremely valuable in any poker-related software, since the code will constantly be comparing various player's hand with each other to determine the "winner". Here is my concept on how I thought I could write a fast evaluator.
He gives a walk through of the motivation and techniques used. It's got some good statistics and programming lessons in there. He also includes the C code to make the thing work.

I worked on a class project as an undergrad related to poker and the hand evaluator was a complete pain in the ass to write. We came up with a bunch of possibilities that were (relatively) graceful and a bunch that were (relatively) fast but none that were both. Kev's code hits both of those.

PS Do kids these days even know how to pack multiple variables into single ints and use bitwise ops to extract them? Forget whether they know how to, do they even know it's possible?  I feel like at 26 years old I'm too young to be a cranky old timer, but I'm dismayed how few coders my age know these sorts of techniques that were de rigueur if you learned C.

23 April 2010

The SEC: A Bastion of Professionalism

Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | To Be Fair, I Bet Working at the SEC Is Pretty Boring

ABC's Jonathan Karl reports that an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission's inspector general recently nabbed 31 of the agency's employees, including 17 "senior SEC officers with salaries ranging from $100,000 to $222,000 per year," for browsing Internet porn during work hours:
The Securities and Exchange Commission is supposed to be the sheriff of the financial industry, looking for financial crimes like Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. But the new report, obtained by ABC News, says senior employees of the SEC spent hours on the commission's computers looking at sites like naughty.com, skankwire, [and] youporn...

One senior attorney at SEC headquarters in Washington spent up to eight hours a day accessing Internet porn. When he filled all the space on his government computer with pornographic images, he downloaded more to CDs and DVDs that accumulated in boxes in his offices.

An SEC accountant attempted to access porn websites 1,800 times in a two-week period and had 600 pornographic images on her computer hard drive.

Another SEC accountant attempted to access porn sites 16,000 times in a single month.

In one case, the report said, an employee tried hundreds of times to access pornographic sites and was denied access. When he used a flash drive, he successfully bypassed the filter to visit a "significant number" of porn sites.

The employee also said he deliberately disabled a filter in Google to access inappropriate sites. After management informed him that he would lose his job, the employee resigned.
Wall Street really better watch out with these guys on the job.

Karl's piece concludes:
Ironically, the report says most of these cases began in 2008, just as the financial system began to collapse. The same SEC officers who should have been safeguarding the economy were instead spending their working hours surfing the Internet for pornography, and the problem hasn't stopped.

The most recent case cited in the report is from just four weeks ago.
I am so glad we have such enlightened and benevolent technocrats to "safeguard the economy."  What could go wrong on their watch?

Laugh so you don't cry, friends.  Laugh so you don't cry.

22 April 2010

Ebert, The Losers and Kick-Ass

Threat Quality Press | Jeff Holland | No, Roger Ebert will tell YOU what’s art!

Damn, Roger Ebert. [...] And yet, every time he opens his mouth (so to speak) in any fashion regarding comic books or video games, I have to remember that he is an old, old man, and he will not consider things like “comics” or “video games” or “Things that were invented after the 1970s” as ever being art.

So, when I see this opening line (from his positive review of “The Losers,” out tomorrow)
“‘The Losers’ is a classical action movie based on a comic strip. It does just enough nodding toward the graphics of drawn superheroes, and then gets that out of the way and settles down into a clean, efficient and entertaining thriller.”
It actually makes me consider lightly slapping an old, infirm, jawless man I admire in the face. Because there’s no reason for the derisive, dismissive attitude. Calling it a comic “strip” when you know damn well there’s enough info in the press pack to explain otherwise (just as a short story isn’t a novel, a comic strip isn’t the same as a comic book); referencing “graphics of drawn superheroes” in a military thriller that has no superheroes, and then “gets that out of the way” so it can be a real movie…
The double irony is that Jock's art for The Losers is very explicitly based on the cinematography of action movies (see for instance, iFanboy Episode 159) so to say that the cinematography of the movie is based on the "graphics of drawn superheroes" really doesn't make any sense.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I like Holland's conclusion as well:
So. Ebert. Perhaps a deal is in order: I will accept your right to give good reviews to clearly awful movies like the “Death at a Funeral” remake and “Avatar,” and YOU can stop making judgments about media you don’t really understand.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Dale Cooper took down Ebert for his but what about the children?!?! review of last week's big comic book movie, Kick-Ass. Now admittedly, it's difficult to write criticism of art works which are examples of the things they're commenting on, like Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead and Kick-Ass. (If memory serves, Colin Marshall discussed this last week as it applied to Haneke's Funny Games.) That sort of self-reflexivity is tricky to address. But Ebert doesn't even try.

The entire premise of the story is that a kid is influenced by superhero stories and tries to act out what's he's seen and read in his real life.  Ebert responds to that with "what if kids see this movie and then go out and try to act it out in real life that would be a tragedy ohmygoddosomethingcolumbinewaaaaaaaaaaaa!" which is simultaneously boring, wrong and insulting.

Arnold Kling is always worth listening to when it comes to financial regulation

Here are his thoughts about the new "reform" package:
My instinct is to call the proposed legislation a "blame deflection bill" rather than financial reform. But I admit that I have not read the whole bill. Has anyone?

My impression is that the following things are not in it.

1. No exit strategy from government support for subsidized, lenient mortgage credit. No curbs on Freddie and Fannie, whose market share has skyrocketed in the past year and a half. No increase in down payment requirements for FHA, which is in deep doo-doo.

2. No change to the role of credit rating agencies, as far as I know. It seems to me that one thing that everyone, left and right, can agree on is that the regulators outsourced their function to the credit rating agencies, and this worked out badly. As far as I know, the bill does not correct this flaw. Perhaps it tries to, but other provisions have gotten more attention.

3. Nothing to address the issue of "cognitive capture." The regulators will still get their analysis of the financial sector from the CEO's of the largest banks.
My preliminary reaction is that this will change nothing. I doubt it would have averted last year's troubles, to say nothing of whatever troubles the future holds.

I wonder if congress could wrap up a thousand pages worth of congratulatory proclamations to women's high school basketball state champions and tax breaks for the East Texas Spinach and Beet Farmers collective and take out menus from Capitol Hill Chinese take-outs and put a cover page on it called "Our Very Serious and Important Financial Reform Package That Will Help the Little Guy and Protect Him from Bogie Men in Power Ties Reform Bill for American Bank Reform Reform Package of 2010 Reform Main Street Hooray Wall Street Booooooo Reform."  Just send out a press release about how things have been reformed, and laws have been passed, and not to worry this is going to fix everything and Congress is going to kiss our booboos and make it all better.  I bet a significant fraction of voters would actually believe that congress had really achieved reform.  (Or if they hadn't it must be because of "special interests.")

This is the important part of Kling's post though:
Finally--and this will get me in big trouble--I have to rant about the notion of a consumer financial protection agency. I know that it's axiomatic that poor people are helpless victims. But in the case of these mortgages, that is a really hard sell. The banks did not take from poor people. They gave to poor people. If you were lucky enough to get one of these exotic mortgages when house prices were still going up, then you got to reap a nice profit on your house. If you were not so lucky, you lost...close to nothing. I'm sorry, but if you borrowed up to 100 percent of the value of the house or more, then all you really lost were your moving expenses.

What about predatory lending? As I understand it, the idea of predatory lending is to saddle the borrower with an expensive mortgage so that you can foreclose on the property and sell it at a profit. How many times did that happen? Have you read of a single instance in the past three years where the bank made a profit on a foreclosure?

I am always ready to feel sorry for poor people because of their poverty. But I cannot feel sorry for somebody who was given a basically free option on a house and the option didn't happen to come into the money.
Well that's not going to get him in trouble with me.

Getting kicked out of your house is a tremendous pain in the ass. But if your foreclosed upon because you have negative equity then it isn't your house. You just live there. It belongs to somebody else.

(Hell, even if you have a mortgage and positive equity the house is only partially yours. And the guy who owns the rest of it has some rights too.)

This idea that house prices must remain forever "high" and mortgage rates must remain permanently "low" is unadulterated lunacy. Why do we want high home prices? So people can sell them and get lots of money? And then what do they do? Go buy another house, paying another high price for it.  Net gain to society: at best zero.

Why do we want mortgage rates to be low? Yeah, it makes it easier to borrow a bunch of money and pay your mortgage, but it makes it harder to save money for a down payment or for anything else you may want to spend money on in the future that is not housing. Is there any rational reason to encourage people to borrow and discourage people from saving?

Stomping down on the gas when driving towards a cliff actually makes it MORE difficult to stop.

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | BREAKING: Health Care Reform Makes it Harder to Balance the Budget

Who could possibly have predicted this shocking and totally unexpected turn of events?
Senate Democrats released details Wednesday of a five-year budget plan that promises to narrow the deficit dramatically by 2015 but still accumulates almost $3.9 trillion more government debt over the same period.

Trying to survive the political storm around them, Democrats would postpone the toughest decisions until after November's elections, when a presidential fiscal commission is scheduled to make its report to Congress. But there is no escaping the political bind that grips the party, exhausted from the debate over health care reform and under political pressure to extend Bush-era tax cuts.

Health care ate up most of the available Medicare savings and popular tax offsets that might otherwise be tapped to narrow the deficit. And as a result, it's harder to dig out of the deficit hole, and little progress will be made in the short term absent a further surge in the economy.
This guy knows how I feel about this result:

I don't have enough juice in the tank tonight to snark about this madness, so I'll leave it at that.

manu scriptus

DC Dicta | Technical difficulties at the Supreme Court
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. - who is known to write out his opinions in long hand with pen and paper instead of a computer...

If they're saying Roberts writes his decisions by hand because he is incapable of using a computer, yeah, that's a little troublesome.  But if he just prefers to write by hand then my hat is off to him.

I write most of my day-to-day stuff by hand, including all of my notes.  If I had an assistant to type all my papers up I would do even more with my trusty fountain pen. I find it much more amenable to analytic thought than typing.  Perhaps Roberts feels the same.  In fact, judicial opinions may be one of the forms I'd think most amenable to writing by hand.

I'll also mention Tom Robbins, who writes all of his novels by mechanical typewriter.  He does no editing at all — once he's done with a sentence it stays that way.  Pick the right word the first time, and then never touch it again.  That wouldn't work for me, but it works wonderfully for him, and maybe Roberts has a similar minimalist system going on.

PS The extract that DC Dicta pulled out makes the justices seem a lot less clueless when you actually read it in context.  Here's the PDF.

PPS Seriously, get a fountain pen.  Writing is actually pleasurable when you've got a good tool in your hands to work with.


JamulBlog | First Light...

This is all over the news, but just in case you somehow missed it – NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) has released its “first light” photos and movies. They are simply spectacular. A whole lot of excellent science is going to flow from this latest (relatively cheap) robotic explorer. Unlike, say, the completely useless International Space Station (with the picture window that cost more than SDO)...
Hear, hear.

Tread 1 Watch

Tread 1 Watch is Bulletproof, Defies Gravity

This thing is gorgeous.  How long has it been since someone designed a qualitatively new wristwatch UI?

SEC & Laziness Bias

Maybe laziness is too specific for this case.  Perhaps it needs to be generalized to "making your own life easier bias" or "cover your ass bias."
Megan McArdle | Goldman Sachs: The Defense Case Starts to Firm Up

Professor Bainbridge suggests that the timing of the Goldman suit may be suspicious, but not in the way that Republicans have claimed. From the Wall Street Journal:
Last Friday, the same day that the government unexpectedly announced its Goldman lawsuit, the SEC's inspector general released his exhaustive, 151-page report on the agency's failure to investigate alleged fraudster R. Allen Stanford. Mr. Stanford was indicted last June for operating a Ponzi scheme that bilked investors out of $8 billion. He has pleaded not guilty.

Guess which of these two stories was pushed to the back pages? The SEC did its part by publishing the Stanford report so deep in its Web site that more than a few of our readers had trouble finding it. Yesterday, the SEC management's response to the report was available on the agency's homepage, yet it provided no links to the report itself.

Little wonder. The report is damning for an SEC that wants the public to believe it has turned the corner after the Bernie Madoff disaster. The commission has made young Fabrice Tourre of Goldman Sachs a household name for his debatable disclosures to institutional investors. But many individual investors will be more interested in learning the story of Spencer Barasch. He's the SEC enforcement official who sat on various referrals to investigate Allen Stanford and then, after leaving the SEC, performed legal work for . . . Allen Stanford.
So not political maneuvering, but agency butt-covering. This sounds suspiciously plausible.
Plausible? I would be shocked if this wasn't the case.

It sent all kinds of red flags up for my father when this was released, for good reason.

If your options are that there is a conspiracy to bias things in favor of the Red Team or the Blue team, or there are a bunch of people stacking the deck to make their own lives simpler, always go with the latter.

Grade inflation

The Economist: Free Exchange | A.S. | Confessions of a grade inflator

MARKING exams and essays is a thankless job. It is tedious and time-consuming, and the feedback is never positive. Students often complain and demand remarking. “I hope you’re happy,” an MBA candidate once shouted at me, “the macro grade you gave me just cost me a career at Goldman!”

Catherine Rampell finds the grade inflation epidemic is worse at private universities, especially in humanities. This may be because private schools, especially in the humanities, tend to assign more frequent and involved assignments, from a grading perspective. Large public universities rely more on exams which can be graded quickly and objectively.
Yes, large universities do, but that's because they have more papers to grade. The total amount of time marking exam results remains more-or-less constant (and constantly high) so there is still incentive to cut corners unless it is a straight multiple choice only test.
There still must be a distribution of grades, to reward worthy students and encourage hard work. But the grade distribution tends to be very tight. In my experience, students must do something really terrible to get less than a B.
We may be better off if we made this explicit. That's more or less how it works in my graduate courses: you get an A for mastering the material, a B for mostly understanding it, and a C for anything less. You do not get credit for any courses you got a C in. It might be a lot harder to inflate grades if the only choices were "fail," "pass," and "pass with distinction." There would be other downsides, of course — lack of granularity when comparing students is the most glaring — but it's worth considering, especially if it is already the de facto system in many courses.
Ms Rampell seems to suggest that some universities give students higher grades to impart some job-market advantage to future alumni. It’s an idea I’ve heard before, typically from people who completed their undergraduate degrees at elite universities, but never went to graduate school (or went for a professional rather than a research degree). I can only speak to my own experiences as a grade inflation enabler. But ensuring my students a well-paid, prestigious job was the furthest thing from my mind. Professors I knew were also too pre-occupied with their own careers to purposely inflate their twenty-year old students’ grades just so they could land a good internship at an investment bank. The only objectives I had, grading any assignment, were to be fair and objective, and to minimise complaints.
This is the laziness bias I mentioned earlier this week in the context of journalism. Don't look for complicated conspiracies if the situation can be easily explained by people trying to make their own lives easier.
But now there might be a solution: out-sourcing. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Virtual-TA, a service of a company called EduMetry Inc., took over. The goal of the service is to relieve professors and teaching assistants of a traditional and sometimes tiresome task—and even, the company says, to do it better than TA's can.

The graders working for EduMetry, based in a Virginia suburb of Washington, are concentrated in India, Singapore, and Malaysia, along with some in the United States and elsewhere. They do their work online and communicate with professors via e-mail. The company advertises that its graders hold advanced degrees and can quickly turn around assignments with sophisticated commentary, because they are not juggling their own course work, too.
The out-sourced TAs, often stay-at-home mothers, have the expertise and time needed to provide thoughtful and detailed comments. There potentially are many benefits. It could be a more efficient allocation of the under-utilised, high-skilled labour potential of the out-sourced TA. Out-sourcing grading also gives professors and graduate students more time to practice their comparative advantage: classroom teaching and research. It can even provide a better education for students. Some professors claim they assign more long writing assignments as a result, and students receive careful, prompt feedback. It should also reduce grade inflation.
I love this idea.

The biggest drawback in my mind is that the out-sourced TAs are less familiar with exactly what was taught in the course.  Perhaps this can be alleviated as more lectures are recorded and available for viewing online.

There's also a reason that TAs usually gather in one spot —in my experience with the professor — to grade papers. It would be more difficult to keep everyone on the same page if you have a half dozen TAs in different cities who've never met. I suppose this is mostly a problem for courses with more than one grader though, and if you had full-time, professional graders perhaps there would be fewer of those.
The virtual TAs do not mark papers anticipating a flurry of complaints for every point deducted.
That was one advantage of latest course I TA'ed: the lecturer made it very clear that it was his responsibility to deal with students bitching about their grades, not ours. We were free to mark papers sternly and fairly without having to worry about complaints.

Another policy that I've seen as both a grader and a student: if a student requests a question be re-graded and it isn't obviously the grader's error, then the entire exam will be re-graded. They're left to wonder what the net effect on their grade will be if they fight for that half point they want.
Naturally there's also a downside. [...] Also, grading and teaching assistantships provide an important source of funding for graduate students. If cheaper virtual TAs become more popular, some graduate students may find themselves out-sourced before they enter the labour market.
Often times when people like me defend free trade we hear something along the lines of "easy for you to say, you don't work in a garment factory or a steel mill." Since we're now talking about outsourcing jobs I have held and will probably hold again, let me say loud and clear: outsourcing is still worth it.

You can't run an economy based on what is good for producers. Things must run to fill consumer desires.

If graduate students are worthy of support then just give them some money rather than rigging systems up to provide them with grading sinecures. It would be more efficient economically and provide better results for the students.

21 April 2010

Guns, tater tots, citizen-soldiers, coffin nails

Kids Prefer Cheese | Munger | Hey General, you just broke my BS meter!

People, sometimes it's just too easy:
School lunches called a national security threat:  Retired military officers say kids are growing up too pudgy for service

By Mary Clare Jalonick, Associated Press Writer

Washington — School lunches have been called many things, but a group of retired military officers is giving them a new label: national security threat.

That's not a reference to the mystery meat served up in the cafeteria line either. The retired officers are saying that school lunches have helped make the nation's young people so fat that fewer of them can meet the military's physical fitness standards, and recruitment is in jeopardy...


"When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice," Barnett said. He noted that national security in the year 2030 is "absolutely dependent" on reversing child obesity rates.
Hey Kid: Every time you eat a tator tot, you're letting the terrorists win!
Item 1: Have you ever had tater tots with Old Bay? If not you are seriously missing out. There's no going back to plain 'tots after you've tried them.

Item 2: It's a good thing we live in a free society with a volunteer military, because that makes the rest of the population's ability or willingness to fight none of my damned business. It might be nice to live in a republic of hoplite scholar-warriors, but I don't, and I'm at okay with that. If one day America proves incapable mounting a defense of herself herself, then America — as lovely as I often find her — does not deserve to survive. It's not my place to tell anyone else to stay in good enough shape to fight on my behalf.

Item 3: For whatever reason I never got around to commenting on it, but one of my favorite books I read last year was Iain Gately's Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization. One of the things that was so striking was the way attitudes towards tobacco have repeated themselves, and how effemeral they have been.

One of my favorite examples of the transience with which people viewed tobacco was the panic many Britons worked themselves into at the beginning of the 20th century over whether their young men, increasingly enamored of cigarettes, would be able to defend the empire. People were convinced tobacco had so enfeebled their boys that they would be incapable of defending King and Country. Fast forward a decade and Woodbines were an official part of ration packets distributed in the trenches.

I know there's a difference between cigs and french fries (though some contemporary campaigners might have us believe otherwise) but this hysteria about youth being unfit for battle reminded me to mention Gately's book.

US v Stephens

Popehat | Ken | Cute Widdle Kitties: Cute, But Not Cuter Than First Amendment

[T]he key to the decision is the Court’s approach to historical carve-outs from free speech protection. The Court has always recognized certain exceptions to the plain language of the First Amendment based on established common law tradition — notably defamation law and obscenity. In Stephens, the Bush and Obama Administrations took the frightening position that courts could add new carve-outs without any historical support based on a touchy-feely weighing of the social value of particular speech. SCOTUS demolishes this argument:
The Government thus proposes that a claim of categorical exclusion should be considered under a simple balancing test: “Whether a given category of speech enjoys First Amendment protection depends upon a categorical balancing of the value of the speech against its societal costs.” Brief for United States 8; see also id., at 12.

As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage, that sentence is startling and dangerous. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis thatsome speech is not worth it. The Constitution is not a document “prescribing limits, and declaring that those limits may be passed at pleasure.” Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 178 (1803).
What was at stake here was considerably more than anyone’s right to sell “crush videos” — or videos of bullfights or fishing or cat juggling. What was at stake was our entire approach to the First Amendment — whether we would allow the courts to continue to poke holes it in based on vague “weighing” tests motivated by the fickle passions of the moment, or whether it would remain a bulwark against hostility towards disfavored speech. Everybody but Justice Alito got it right. Good for them.
Two points:

(1) I wholeheartedly agree that there is no point in the first amendment if some temporal authority gets to decide "nah, that stuff isn't worth it." For one thing, that means speech isn't a right anymore, it's something you're privileged to do by the grace of congress and the courts. For another, there's no need to protect only speech we all agree is valuable. The entire point of protecting speech is to protect the stuff that most people don't like.  I've used the Adlai Stevenson quote once already this week, but freedom is about making it possible to be unpopular.

(2) Maybe somebody can fill me in here, because I get the feeling I don't have the background knowledge to understand this,* but why are there so many cases of administration n continuing to press the arguments of administration n-1?  Because these sorts of decisions are made by courts so slowly I feel like I read an awful lot of "the Clinton DOJ argued X, which was continued by the Bush DOJ" or in this case Obama is continuing down the road that Bush put him on.

Is it a sort of gentlemen's agreement that the new Solicitor General won't abandon lines of reasoning laid out by their predecessor, perhaps in the name of continuity? Is it that these cases are about defending government power and administrations of all ideologies have an interest in doing that? Is it a procedural thing? Once a party, such as the entire United states, has made it's case it can't tack in a different direction?

Maybe there are lots of cases where DOJ n+1 does drop an argument but I don't here about those.  It just seems to me like I ought to be reading about more appeals in which the Solicitor says "no, we forsake the position of our predecessors, they were mistaken."

PS Patrick commented on this case at Popehat as well.

* Updated:  Patrick helpfully points out that I was missing something very, very basic:

DOJ is required to defend the constitutionality of any act of Congress. There may have been a case or two recently in which the Solicitor General equivocated in defending a law that was problematic, but it's almost unheard of.

Two of today's web comics are going up on my lab door

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

First, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

And of course, today's XKCD, which is an instant classic:

I think my favorite bit is the "may use actual sandal instead" below the diagram of an SR flip-flop.


NY Times: Economix Blog | Ed Glaeser | A Tale of Many Cities 

"Zipf’s Law" is one of the great curiosities of urban research. The law claims that the number of people in a city is inversely proportional to the city’s rank among all cities. In other words, the biggest city is about twice the size of the second biggest city, three times the size of the third biggest city, and so forth.

Zipf’s Law is named after the linguist George Kingsley Zipf, who discovered the law when studying the distribution of words: the second most common word in a text typically shows up one-half as often as the most commonly used word. The law has been observed in many other contexts, including firm sizes and income distribution, which follows the closely-connected Pareto Distribution. [...]

Part of the appeal of Zipf’s Law is that it appears be entirely natural. As Steven Strogatz wrote in The New York Times about one year ago: “No city planner imposed it, and no citizens conspired to make it happen.”
It's like people engage in some sort of self-organization! The universe isn't guided by a central planner, and yet it makes some sense!
But Zipf’s Law seems to be mainly a product of city or metropolitan area boundaries, not the natural distribution of population.

Professors Holmes and Lee ignored political boundaries and split America up using a six-by-six-mile grid. Their cities are squares crafted without any attention to actual boundaries. Using Census Block level data, they calculate the population of each square in the grid. It turns out that Zipf’s Law doesn’t work for these fixed geographic areas."
Of course it doesn't. It's not a function of boundaries per se, it's a function of names and human perceptions.

Their experiment is like squishy all the letters in a book together, then dividing them up into contiguous 10 letter blocks, and expecting the frequency distribution of these blocks to be the same as that for words.
Zipf’s Law is a bust at describing the population levels of areas within fixed boundaries.

But that doesn’t make the law irrelevant. It rather pushes us to understand why Zipf’s Law holds across metropolitan areas, but not in large squares of fixed size.
That's an easy question: 6x6 mile grids don't have any semantic relevance. Nobody says "I want to live in cell #481746," just like noboday ever strings the letters ASTHEBESTOFTI together unless it's incidental to saying something meaningful. People may exhibit preference for cell #481746 because it happens to be San Frnacisco's Marina district, and they may type ASTHEBESTOFTI because they're trying to say "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," but the arbitrary chunks are meaningless.

Glaeser begins making more sense in the paragraphs that follow, but he uses the loaded and inaccurate word "sprawl" when he really means "preferential attachment." Sprawl, which is difficult to define because it's usually used to mean "any development less dense than Manhattan which I don't like," has an element of density and intra-urban space to it that the rest of the piece and Zipf's law lack. I find it slightly irresponsible to invoke the name of a bogie man when there's a commonly used, value-judgement-free term in wide scientific circulation.

20 April 2010

In Europe, words mean whatever you want them to

Well, at least "rights" means whatever the eurocrats want it to.
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | “Rights”: I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

I wish I had the book in front of me, but in one of the collections of Ayn Rand’s essays (either the Virtue of Selfishness or Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal) she quoted a bit of the 1968 Democratic Party platform, which called for all kinds of fake rights, the most hilarious being the right to vacation or leisure.

Well it turns out that absurd corruptions of the concept of individual liberty are never unthinkable, just ahead of their time:
Brussels has declared that tourism is a human right and pensioners, youths and those too poor to afford it should have their travel subsidised by the taxpayer…

“Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life,” [European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry Antonio Tajani], said…

Tajani’s programme will be piloted until 2013 and then put into full operation… it is expected the EU will subsidise about 30% of the cost.
Jesus wept.

The world does not owe you a living OR A VACATION.

I think this is the point at which I and every other believer in negative rights (i.e. actual rights, and not largess bestowed by the state) just hang our heads and weep silently into our whisky.

College Admissions

Stephen Bainbridge points to a Lexington column in the Ecomosist* from some years back in the process of discussing the alma maters of Supreme Court justices and elitism.  That column touches on something that's been bouncing around my head since my friends and I applied to colleges a decade ago.

(* gated, but he [and I] extract the relevant sections)
[In The Price of Admission] Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.
Sidenote: privilege is privilege. I don't care if it's your family name or money or your athletic skills or your race: you're getting a boost based on something unrelated to academic potential or performance.  The particular form that privilege takes is of secondary importance.
The American establishment is extraordinarily good at getting its children into the best colleges. In the last presidential election both candidates—George Bush and John Kerry—were “C” students who would have had little chance of getting into Yale if they had not come from Yale families. Al Gore and Bill Frist both got their sons into their alma maters (Harvard and Princeton respectively), despite their average academic performances. Universities bend over backwards to admit “legacies” (ie, the children of alumni). Harvard admits 40% of legacy applicants compared with 11% of applicants overall. Amherst admits 50%. An average of 21-24% of students in each year at Notre Dame are the offspring of alumni. When it comes to the children of particularly rich donors, the bending-over-backwards reaches astonishing levels. Harvard even has something called a “Z” list—a list of applicants who are given a place after a year's deferment to catch up—that is dominated by the children of rich alumni.
Side note two: I feel compelled as an ND alumnus to defend them a bit.  Notice how the columnist mentions how many matriculants at Notre Dame are legacies, but not how many applicants.  I happen to think, based on my anecdotal experience, that Notre Dame really overdoes it with legacy admissions, but it's impossible to tell just from the number presented.

Side note three:  Because I accepted my admission so late I had the good fortune of being placed in a dorm with a preponderance of men accepted off the wait list to Notre Dame.  They were by far more interesting, more unconventional, and more inspired than average.  I'd take Notre Dame's waitlist over Harvard's "Z List" day of the week and twice on Sundays.  Those are the men I want to face my life with, not some druggy under-achiever like Al Gore III.

Enough with the side notes, the actual point of this post is that the school which rejects this mode of admissions now will suffer in the short term but dominate in a generation or two.  A university could become the envy of every ambitious high school student if they built a name forthemselves as the place with the most capable, most industrious, hungriest alumni, and to hell with who their parents are.
The returns on higher education are rising: the median earnings in 2000 of Americans with a bachelor's degree or higher were about double those of high-school leavers. But elite universities are becoming more socially exclusive.
No, the returns to higher education when studnts actually bother to learn something are rising. By cutting out all the entitled children of privelege you'll get many more of your graduates actually achieving.

I see a natural alliance between an admissions strategy that focuses on talent, and a course of study that eschews softball majors and embraces rigor.

That's how Hoffer University will operate when I've founded it.

State vs Society and Voice vs Choice

The Economist's Bagehot columnist views the upcoming British election through the lens of governmental vs  societal problems and solutions, a theme I mentioned yesterday. Here's an extract from that piece, which is well worth reading.
[...] Conservatives have extracted a core manifesto theme too: the “Big Society”. Their basic case is that the state should devolve (some) power to local authorities and communities, and outsource the provision of more services to competing social enterprises and charities. They advocate new state-funded but independent schools; the establishment of more co-operatives by NHS employees; the tendering of more welfare-to-work services to private providers. They would introduce elected police commissioners, more local referendums, and so on.

This pitch likewise has glitches and qualifications. Most importantly, it is a plan to shrink the set of tasks the state itself performs, not those for which it undertakes to pay. So it isn’t merely, as the Tories’ opponents maintain, a return to a cruel era of inadequate voluntarism—but nor is it a credible strategy for saving taxpayers’ money, at least to begin with.

Moreover, David Cameron’s vision of a humbler state is clouded by his wish to extend its reach into private relationships, via his silly and tokenistic tax break for some married couples. That is a flash of the kind of irrational authoritarianism that warps much American conservatism and still lurks in many Tory breasts. [...]

All the same, in essence, this is the debate: state versus society; voice versus choice. Thoughtful Labour politicians prefer to cast the stand-off as their “smart” state versus the Tories’ “minimal” one. But they don’t dispute the essential dichotomy.
Even conceding that the State is or can be particularly smart, I still say it's better to be ruled by your own folly than another's wisdom.

This is how the columnist describes the Tory Labor platform:
[Labor] promises more “voice and choice” for citizens. But while those nouns rhyme, they are distinct, and Labour is ultimately offering more of the former than the latter: new ways to register discontent and exert pressure, within a system in which the state is the final arbiter and enforcer of standards and remedies.
I feel like this is the same treatment we get from organizations in America like school boards and county councils and Universities. It's also the guiding pirciple of "town hall" meetings. Lots of chances to express your views, followed by empty promises to take them into consideration, followed by no discernible impact.  Voice without choice is what is happening whenever you hear about "involving community stakeholders" and such other drivel.

line of the day

"It is impossible to fully enumerate the idiocy – the Federal Register grows faster than I can type."

I'm inspired to write a childrens' book modeled on Strega Nona and her magical pasta pot, in which a partially benevolent but ill-informed and semi-selfish servant like Big Anthony accidentally activates the magical regulatory book, and it grows forever and ever, faster than the good townspeople can comply.

"Race as a Cudgel"

The American Scene | Conor Friedersdorf | Race as a Cudgel Against the Right

Charles M. Blow has published an op-ed, A Mighty Pale Tea, that seems quite unfair to me.

After attending a tea party rally in Dallas, Texas, he writes:
I had specifically come to this rally because it was supposed to be especially diverse. And, on the stage at least, it was. The speakers included a black doctor who bashed Democrats for crying racism, a Hispanic immigrant who said that she had never received a single government entitlement and a Vietnamese immigrant who said that the Tea Party leader was God. It felt like a bizarre spoof of a 1980s Benetton ad.
I wouldn’t say it’s like a spoof of a Benetton Ad so much as evidence that the ideology responsible for Benetton ads has triumphed in America. Ethnic diversity has positive associations, and so it is pursued for the sake of appearances even when the visuals that result are contrived and artificial.

In any context except a Tea Party, the vast majority of liberal writers would praise the act of highlighting the voices of “people of color” even if they aren’t particularly representative of a crowd or corporation or university class. Let it happen at a rally of conservatives, however, and this winds up on the nation’s premier op-ed page:
I found the imagery surreal and a bit sad: the minorities trying desperately to prove that they were “one of the good ones”; the organizers trying desperately to resolve any racial guilt among the crowd. The message was clear: How could we be intolerant if these multicolored faces feel the same way we do?
And later in the same piece:
Thursday night I saw a political minstrel show devised for the entertainment of those on the rim of obliviousness and for those engaged in the subterfuge of intolerance. I was not amused.
It’s this kind of piece that causes people on the right to think that on matters of race, they’re damned if they do, and they’re damned if they don’t — if they don’t make efforts to include non-whites they’re unenlightened propagators of privilege, and if they do make those efforts they’re the cynical managers of a minstrel show, but either way, race is used as a cudgel to discredit them in a way that would never be applied to a political movement on the left.

The piece also treats the minorities who willingly spoke at the rally with some pretty profound disrespect.
I don't have a lot of patience for the Tea Party crowd.  For one thing,  I think going to political rallies is a supremely ineffectual thing to do.  I actually think carrying protest signs may be actively harmful, since it  allows people to feel as if they are having an impact while making almost no difference.

Add to that the fact that a lot of them are they're pretty ill-informed and a hefty chunk are nutso paranoids.  (See Michael Moynihan's piece here, which Friedersdorf links to.)  But this is a country which has decided the Slanket is a swell thing, so I'm pretty much surrounded by crazy people who's opinions and decisions I can't trust.  So I don't really have a lot of sympathy for those folks, even though we have much common ideological ground.

Nevertheless, I can't stand having them dismissed out of hand.  The leftward wing of "the elite" are always bemoaning a lack of "engagement" with the other side, and an insufficient amount of bipartisanship and cooperation, but when a serious ideological movement springs up practically over night the only response I hear is that they're all knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, maleficent cretins who should shut up, go back to the hinterlands, and accept that their betters have it all under control.  I don't like people who oppose me deploying bad arguments, but I don't like people who agree with me deploying bad arguments either, and in this case the "ZOMG! Tea baggers = stupid paranoid racists!!" is one part of the latter and four parts of the former.

More to the point at hand, what if 100% of the non-white people at that rally were shills?  What if the whole movement was white?  Saying that an opinion is only acceptable if it is embraced by a sufficient number of members of certain groups is logically the same thing as saying that opinions are only valid if they are sufficiently popular in general.  The validity of an idea is unrelated to the number of people who agree with it, just as it is unrelated to the types of people who believe it.

(PS See also Friedersdorf's follow up here.)