31 May 2010

Some Listening

I was blissfully out of touch with news while vacationing,* so I little to say about news.  I did listen to some podcasts while flying though.  Here are a few that I probably would have bothered to comment on if I were home when I listened to them.  [NB These are now two weeks out of date, as I forgot to publish this when I got home.  Still worth listening too, though, as they're not current-events type stuff.]

( * Though sports news managed to slip in.  Well done to Inter for their Champions League trophy and to England for their World Twenty20 win.)

Cato Daily Podcast :: "Robert Gates Is No Dwight Eisenhower" featuring Justin Logan

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The Economist :: Barack Obama's rant against technology (article — "Don't shoot the messenger: America’s president joins a long (but wrong) tradition of technophobia")

This reminds me of a passage in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I was reading while away.

"To worship the natural to the exclusion of the unnatural is to practice Organic Fascism. And in the best tradition of fascism, the are totally intolerant of those who don't share their beliefs: thus they foster the very kinds of antagonism and tension that lead to strife, which they, pacifists one and all, claim to abhor. To insist that a woman who paints berry juice on her lips is somehow superior to the woman who wears Revlon lipstick is sophistry; it's smug sophistical skunkshit. Lipstick is a chemical composition, so is berry juice, and they both are effective for decorating the face. If lipstick has advantages over berry juice than let us praise that part of technology that produced the lipstick. The organic world is wonderful, but the inorganic isn't bad, either. The world of plastic and artifice offers its share of magical surprises." ... 
"A thing is good because it's good," he continued, "not because it's natural. A thing is bad because it's bad, not because it's artificial. It's not a damn iota better to be bitten by a rattlesnake than shot by a gun."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Economist :: Innovation in history (article — "Getting better all the time: The biological, cultural and economic forces behind human progress," a review of Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist)

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The Invisible Hand :: Management Rewired with Charles Jacobs

A review of (of course) Management Rewired, a book about brain science and business management. That's a very intriguing combination for me, so I'm going to have to pick this one up.

I am a little worried about the way Jacobs played fast a loose with his analysis by mixing up different cognitive levels. For instance he seemed to equate inhibitory neurons and behavioral inhibitions.** Jacobs seems to be conflating, in this interview if not in the book itself, the physical and metaphorical, the anatomical and the functional. I was happy to hear him bring up the Bundle Theory of Self, but I think he may have similar problems of evaluating it on several different scales concurrently. I shall have to read his book and see.

( ** Yes, there are inhibitory neurons involved in behavioral inhibitions, but inhibitory neurons are involved in ... pretty much everything, from focusing your vision on a location, to bending your arm, to figuring out where on your body you're being poked, to deciding whether eat a bite of meat next or go for a mouthful of potatoes.  I'm currently unable to think of a neural process which does not involve some inhibition on the neuronal level.)


I finally got around to watching the end of Lost.

Question: Is it still disappointment if you expect to be disappointed?

Mrs. SB7 said that the one thing she did not want was to finish the series and have to turn to me and say "okay, now we need to go to the internet to figure out what that meant."  And that's exactly what we had to do.

I don't have a enough blogojuice to bother organizing my thoughts, so here's a smattering of points and other people's comments and whatnot in no particular order

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Gothamist | Jen Carlson | So That Happened: LOST Ended

Cuse did tell Diane Sawyer, however, that they "tried to make an ending to the show that was kind of spiritual." Did they succeed, or did it feel more like... if you are in love you go to a couples dance in heaven? While the many unanswered questions will assure this show has a long afterlife of its own (and will we see a feature film?), the basics were essentially explained. To sum up (and here's a full set of reviews): "Sideways World was, it seems, a sort of afterlife holding room, where you hang out until all the most important people in your life are dead together"
But that doesn't even succeed on it's own terms. These aren't people who are important to each other, they're people who are important to viewers of the show. How is Boone important to Bernard? Best I can recall the two of them never even met. The driving force for the entirety of Sayid's life, except a couple of weeks on the island, was Nadia. So he spends eternity with Shannon, a chick he barely knew instead.

"The basics" were not adequately explained. As Ross Douthat said:
“Guys, where are we?” Dominic Monaghan’s Charlie famously asked his fellow plane crash survivors in the pilot episode. To be judged a success on its own terms, “Lost” needed to answer that question much, much more completely than it did. Across six seasons, it’s true, we learned endless facts about the island — about its geography, its inhabitants, and what had happened on it across decades and centuries. But we never learned the whys behind the facts. And with the final season in the books, there’s good reason to think that we never learned them because the show’s creators never had a well-thought-out “why” for their story in the first place. The island wasn’t a real mystery — it was just a MacGuffin.
"Where are we" is the only question that needed to be addressed. The sixth season just kept packing on more "WTF is this place?" More magic powers, more special rules, more questions about how it came to be and why it is important and what it's for and who started it and why it needs to be protected and from who.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The only answers we ever got in the entire series were of one of two types: they were to questions we didn't even know existed several episodes before, or they were banal and straight forward.  "Wait, is that guy a psychic or something?"  "Yes.  Yes he is."  "Where did those polar bears from from?" "From the polar bear cages." "What is that deal with that guy? Is he immortal?"  "Yup." "How did he get to be immortal?" "Because he asked to be."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I've heard a lot of Lost defenders, including some of its writers say,  "Oh, it's about the characters, not the island."

Bullshit.  Look, there are a lot of shows about "the characters."  I like them. They don't muddy everything up with magic smoke and magic lighthouses and magic streams and magic magnets. You can't throw all that stuff in and then say, "hey hey don't look at the time travel and ghosts and psychics just look at the characters." That's not how narrative works.

Lost is not "survivors of plane crash marooned on island" or even "survivors of plane crash marooned on island to which there is more than meets the eye." It is "survivors of plane crash marooned on island which is unique and different from every other island in the world because VERY WEIRD SHIT HAPPENS THERE."  From the very beginning we have been told there is something weird and different about this island. Arguably from the shot in which John Locke can walk in the pilot episode.  You don't get to say "nah, it's only about the characters."

Turn this around for a second and imagine I was writing a show and insisting it's not about the characters, it's really an investigation of the setting. It's about some people surviving a ship wreck on a totally normal island, and the survivors are Zombie Isaac Newton, Rasputin, Jesus, Superman and a sentient, time-traveling robot. Could I claim with a straight face that all the bizarre characters are ancillary to this show about the totally run-of-the-mill island? Of course not. So how come a show about a bunch of normal people on bizarro island can ignore the bizarre and unusual and focus on the pedestrian? It's a cop out.

If you're claiming all the other, non-character stuff is ancillary then you're no better than the third grader that inserts ninjas riding on dinosaurs fighting robots into every story he tells.  You've larded up the story with a bunch of extraneous shit.  In fact I was listening to Preston & Steve's show the Monday after the finale aired and a caller said that his son finished every story with "And then everyone died and went to Heaven."  Give that kid a pilot on ABC, because he's doing about as well as Lindelof, Cuse and Abrams

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The American Scene | Peter Suderman | LOST

Even as a longtime skeptic, I was shocked by the degree to which the writers shrugged off the mythological elements they’d introduced in previous seasons. I was expecting minimal, vague, and unsatisfying answers to questions about the island’s origin, nature, and properties; about the Dharma Initiative and its goals, experiments, and technology; about time travel, the nature of the smoke monster, the various characters with supernatural abilities, or any of the many, many other mysteries. What I wasn’t expecting was that the writers would more or less decline to answer these questions entirely.

But in the end, it turns out Lost's writers had exactly one shtick: pile up the big mysteries to keep people hooked, but only ever resolve the banal, domestic conflicts. The series wasn’t a story. It was a gimmick, repeated over and over for six increasingly frustrating years.
Suderman also points out that moment-to-monet, scene-to-scene, the writing was textbook perfect: tightly focused, well motivated series of clear conflicts for the characters to tackle. I agree completely. But string it all together and it just doesn't add up.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As other people have pointed out nothing the main characters did mattered: they all ended up walking into the sunshine with all the people they happened to have crashed with (plus Desmond and Penny). Die a hero, save peoples lives, fight for whatever: doesn't matter. You still end up sitting in a church pew with your soul mate. It makes your life pointless. Why sacrifice yourself? What does it accomplish? Eventually everyone dies and then they go to heaven.

In fact none of their actions in the purgatory-timeline matter either, because no matter what they do Desmond is going to maneuver everyone into having some cathartic vision and from there into a magic church nave. Why get into gun fights and high-speed chaes and take risks with surgeries and blackmail and mental institutions if a crazy Scotsman is pulling all the strings anyway?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So the whole alternate timeline is just a holding pattern until you get to go to heaven. Why? The only reason that you need the "Touched by an Angel a Desmond" reunion before everyone disappears into the cornfield is if you can't have reunions in heaven itself. What kind of paradise is that?  Why get everyone together in one room to proceed to the afterlife if you could just go to heaven when you died and then meet up with people there?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A lot of the positive reviews of the finale I've heard have focused on it being a nice emotional, feel-good way to end things. (1) That's true. It was fairly moving. (2) That's also kind of cheap. Dying and meeting up with your soulmate in the hereafter is easy pablum. "And then they died and went to heaven," is not the stuff of good drama, it's the stuff of fairy tales. (3) I never really doubted that Sun and Jin or Charlie and Claire would be re-united in paradise. This was telling me something I had no reason to expect wouldn't occur. (4) This undermines everything the characters did in their lives in a way. Why should Sun and Jin or Rose and Bernard fight so hard to be re-united in reality if they were going to get re-united in collective fantasy land anyway? It was sweet to see Charlie again, but I had come to peace with the fact that he heroically sacrificed himself to save others. When people die in a drama, especially in a manner like that, they need to stay dead. To bring them back later for a group hug undermines the worth of their life and death. (Are you listening, comic book writers?)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Lots of people are saying it's too hard to wrap up the whole sprawling story, but that's a total cop out.  And even if it isn't, it's just a polite way of saying the writers wrote themselves into a corner and weren't good enough to get back out.  Since when it over-promising and under-delivering a defense?

And besides there are plenty of good ideas for how it could have been wrapped up a lot more satisfactorily than it was.  Here, for instance, are Jeff Holland's thoughts on how it could have been done.  Here are a couple of posts of ideas from his co-blogger Braak: one, two.

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Threat Quality Press | Jeff Holland | Eight More Thoughts On the ‘Lost’ Finale

Because Lost has a habit of making nontraditional choices, it stared at those lingering questions that they could have built a sound season/concluding story-arc around, and went, “NO, FUCK IT, H-BOMB SOLVED ALL THAT. Now let’s talk about magical lighthouses and glowing caves and immortals.”
But you know what, they didn't even talk about magical lighthouses and glowing caves and immortals. They showed that those things existed AND THEN DIDN'T TALK ABOUT THEM.
That was a long way to go for a “They were all dead” joke
That is tragically true.
So when Jacob said “cork”…
That was not a metaphor.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Also check out Braak's thoughts from the end of last season about what should be addressed in the final season. Fascintating to go back in time. This stands out:
Threat Quality Press | Braak | I Have Now Seen Lost Season 5

Did [Jacob and Smokey/MiB/Esau] make the deal with each other? Or are they abiding by rules set down by someone else? It seems a little late in the game to introduce an even higher authority.
They didn't just do that in the sixth season, they did it in the final couple of episodes.
And what Jacob and Esau are up to seems like more than just a game with an arbitrarily-defined set of outcomes. That little scene the two of them had when they saw the Black Rock bespoke of a fundamental difference of viewpoint, similar to the way that Goethe describes the Argument in Faust.
Their difference of viewpoint seems to consist entirely of Esau wanting to leave the island to hang out with the rest of humanity and Jacob ... not wanting to. That's it.

All in all I think I would have vastly preferred to see the fellas at TQP running the show for the sixth season.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One other small moment that really bugged me was Jack volunteering to take over for Jacob. We've gone this whole time hearing about destiny and special people and "candidates."  Then Jacob sits some people around a camp fire, asks them who wants his job, and Jack just raises his hand and that's the end of it. That may have been the single simplest, least conflicted decision in the entire show. Everything else has been a showdown: do we go find fresh water or stay near the beach? Do we trust this guy or that guy? Use the radio to call for help or destroy it and hide? Everything has had factions and arguments and usually fisticuffs and gun fights, but the single most important choice of the show's mythology is just a guy raising his hand after zero seconds of contemplation and no idea what he's getting into.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Some of the more small-scale questions:
io9 | Charlie Jane Anders | 50 questions Lost needed to answer: a report card!
I didn't actually expect answers to a vast majority of that list, but it is useful to remind ourselves just how many loose threads were created.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | *Lost*: commentary on the final episode

Overall I thought it was the best final episode of a series I have seen, with close competition from The Sopranos.
Tyler Cowen is approaching the point at which he is always being contrary. At that limit he ceases to be interesting, because you can always tell what he is going to say, just like the boring person who always agrees with the conventional wisdom.

He has a theory about multiple worlds and Leibniz. Will Wilkinson responds here. I liked his conclusion:
The finale of Lost pretended to be about the ultimacy and redemptive power of love, or something like that, but it exemplified instead the incoherent ruinous mess of our needy scattershot attachments, our whorish readiness to be doped by the dull, warm, indeterminate golden light. Speak not to me of love, Lost, if you know not love.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(via io9 | Marc Bernardin)

I don't hold the "we promise it's not Purgatory -- oh wait just kidding it's Purgatory" thing against the writers. The fan theory was that the Island was Purgatory, and it turns out the other time-line was. That time line didn't even exist in the show when the Purgatory theories were making the rounds, so I don't feel like the writers lied or anything.

One of the things I give Lost a lot of credit for is the way it inspired interpretation. Not many shows have got people so involved in deciphering and analyzing and theorizing and thinking. Well done for that.

28 May 2010

Offered without comment

Atomic Nerds | LabRat | Interfaith Dialogue

Saying “I’m not religious, but I wholly respect the religious” sounds nice enough, but there really is no way to explain any further that doesn’t boil down to “I believe the foundation of your worldview and morality to be fictional, but I really like what you’ve done with the story and have no problem if you want to keep telling it to yourself.” Likewise, coming from the other way around it boils down to: “I believe you to be fundamentally rejecting an important cornerstone of reality on which I firmly believe all morality rests, but no pressure. It’s only your immortal soul and, y’know, forever that’s at stake. Good luck with that.”

It is perhaps unsurprising and understandable that the natural human response to either of these is “Fuck you and your asinine claim of respect.”

The other third rail of civil discourse, politics, is similar- in order to come along politely with disagreement between significant ideological rifts, one must pointedly ignore that said ideological distinctions are so fundamental that you believe the other to be basically deluded about the way the world works and the right way to go about ordering society.


The Big Questions | Steven Landsburg | Diagnosis

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, widely known as the bible of psychiatric medicine, is under revision and the American Psychiatric Association is accepting public comment at a new website. [...]

By contrast, the American Physical Society is not asking the general public to weigh in on the prospects for supersymmetry, nor is the American Economic Association surveying the general public on the properties of dynamic stochastic general equilibria. So much for any pretense that psychiatry is a science.
Deep burn.

I think psychiatry can be quite useful.  But counseling from a religious leader can be quite valuable as well.  Neither is Science though.

The majority of questions that psychiatry currently concerns itself with are about "normality." I do not think there is a way to avoid this sort of Truth-by-public-opinion balderdash when it comes to these issues.

Porter & Kuleshov

Film is editing.

Algorithmic Trading

Kids Prefer Cheese | Mike Munger | Machine Trading Good?

At a minimum, not bad.

The problem is that many people think stuff they don't understand must be bad. Of course, they still watch their plasma tv. Somehow, not understanding THAT must be okay.
Does Algorithmic Trading Improve Liquidity?

Terrence Hendershott, Charles Jones & Albert Menkveld
Journal of Finance, forthcoming

Abstract: Algorithmic trading has sharply increased over the past decade. Does it improve market quality, and should it be encouraged? We provide the first analysis of this question. The NYSE automated quote dissemination in 2003, and we use this change in market structure that increases algorithmic trading as an exogenous instrument to measure the causal effect of algorithmic trading on liquidity. For large stocks in particular, algorithmic trading narrows spreads, reduces adverse selection, and reduces trade-related price discovery. The findings indicate that algorithmic trading improves liquidity and enhances the informativeness of quotes
Now maybe this is just some kind of Helsinki syndrome reaction from the trauma of Professor Chen's algorithmic analysis class, but you take anything I'm cool with already and add the adjective "algorithmic" to it, and I'm totally on-board.

Algorithmic art?  Yes, please.  Algorithmic trading?  Sure thing.  Algorithmic whisky distilling?  Sadly, that doesn't appear to exist yet, but I think that just makes it my responsibility to correct this tragedy.  Somebody get me a big copper pot, several bushels of grains, and a Ruby interpreter.

"She turned me into a newt!" ... "I got better."

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | The unenlightened economy
SNAKING AROUND the outer wall of the courthouse in Mbaiki, Central African Republic, is a long line of citizens, all in human form and waiting to face judgment. It’s easy to imagine them as the usual mix of drunks, reckless drivers, and check-bouncers in the dock of a small American town. But here most are witches, and they are facing criminal punishment for hexing their enemies or assuming the shape of animals.

By some estimates, about 40 percent of the cases in the Central African court system are witchcraft prosecutions.

...most lawyers I consulted there favored keeping the law intact, although they admitted that it fits uneasily in a modern legal system. “The problem is that in a witchcraft case, there is usually no evidence,” said Bartolomé Goroth, a lawyer in Bangui...
More here. Add this to the evidence for Joel Mokyr's thesis.
Hat tip: The Browser.
"Usually no evidence"? Is there ever any evidence?  I can only hope the evidence involves putting people on scales with ducks.

You could also change "most lawyers I consulted there favored keeping the law intact" to "most lawyers I consulted there favored superstitious bullshit which keeps them employed."

Also, consider that in a country with $745 of GDP per capita (PPP), the government is confiscating money from people and spending it on witchcraft trials.  In the 21st century.

27 May 2010

Delicious Coupons

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Bond markets in everything
British high-end chocolate maker and retailer Hotel Chocolat, which currently operates over 40 stores in the UK, the Middle East and the US, wants to expand even further. But rather than turning to banks or big investors for money, they're inviting customer to buy bonds. Bonds that will pay chocolate returns.

Two values of Chocolate Bond will be issued: both with the return paid in monthly Tasting Boxes. Holders of a GBP 2,000 Chocolate Bond will receive six free tasting boxes a year worth GBP 107.70 per year, and those holding a GBP 4,000 bond will receive thirteen boxes, worth GBP 233.35 per year. Which comes down to a 5.38% return. After an initial term of three years, and on every anniversary thereafter, bond holders can redeem their bond for a full return of their investment. If they decide to continue to hold the bond, the monthly boxes will keep on coming.
The link is here and hat tip goes to Eric John Barker.
Awesome. Check out the comments on that post as well.

This seems like a fantastic idea. It would be even better for a software company though, since the marginal cost of providing the coupon payments would be zero. I'm picturing someone like Netflix raising money for an expansion by offering premium services for X years in exchange for buying a $Y bond.

This might be good for newspapers and magazines that need immediate cash infusions as well.

I know of several donation-driven entities that will do something like put your name in for a drawing whenever you donate some cash. If not for the accounting headaches, this model could work for them as well: as long as you let them take the float on your money they add your name to the hat.

It might be a good option for school-based groups because they have a natural maturity. Instead of paying some activity fee or booster club membership you buy a four-year bond. I bet you'd get a lot parents who wouldn't bother to redeem it when they were eligible to at their child's graduation, so that's an extra bonus.

Arizona Boycott, Pt III

EconLog | David Henderson | Arizona Immigration: Battle of the Collectivists

The Side That Likes the Law

Many of those who like the new Arizona law say that they want it because of the huge wave of violent crime engaged in by illegal immigrants.* [...] Yet, if this is their difficulty--that is, if their goal is to change or avoid such things--doesn't it make sense to go after the people doing such things and not illegal immigrants as a class? [...] But if you see all illegal immigrants as part of a big, undifferentiated mass, you are likely to fail to ask such questions.

The Side That Dislikes the Law

I wish I could say that the side I'm on has no collectivist thinking. But I can't. Many people have responded to the law, not by holding accountable and protesting the individual legislators who voted for it and the Arizonans who favor it, but by calling for a boycott of Arizona. Boycotts are unlikely to be effective but, even if they were effective, they would tend to penalize the wrong people. They're like sanctions. They don't single out the specific people who did something the boycotters object to. Instead, they treat Arizonans as one undifferentiated mass.
I linked to this in the side-bar when it came out, but I'm always willing to pick on more collectivist anti-humanism.

[* That "huge wave of violent crime" is about as real as the huge wave that swamped Atlantis.]

Arizona Boycott, Pt II

Space for Commerce | Bryan Dunbar | Other fine imports include Guinness and the Dropkick Murphys

Boycotts are awesome. A very American [1] institution. Economic freedom rocks!

Until the boycotted fire back. Arizona Corporation Commission member Gary Pierce to the City of Los Angeles
If an economic boycott is truly what you desire, I will be happy to encourage Arizona utilities to renegotiate your power agreements so Los Angeles no longer receives any power from Arizona-based generation.

I am confident that Arizona’s utilities would be happy to take those electrons off your hands. If, however, you find that the City Council lacks the strength of its convictions to turn off the lights in Los Angeles and boycott Arizona power, please reconsider the wisdom of attempting to harm Arizona’s economy.
I bet Los Angeles would miss 25% of it's electric power waaay more than Arizona will miss the revenue Los Angeles sends to Arizona.

[1] Yes, the boycott was invented in Ireland. So what?
Hahaha.  Follow through, LA. Go ahead.  What is the ratio of people who publicly threaten boycotts to those who actually follow through?  Anyone have any research on this?

(Can we rightly consider the Dropkicks an import?  I think they might be closer to an importer than an import themselves, being Bostonians originally.  Van Morrison, he's an import.)

Pro Entrance, Anti Exit

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Wake Me Up When They Actually Put Any Income at Risk

From the AZ Republic:
Zack de la Rocha has issued a statement on behalf of an organization called the Sound Strike urging music fans and fellow artists to boycott Arizona “to stop SB 1070,” which he labels an “odious” law.

Among those artists joining de la Rocha’s boycott are Conor Oberst, Kanye West, Rage Against the Machine, Rise Against, Cypress Hill, Serj Tankian, Joe Satriani, Sonic Youth, Tenacious D, Street Sweeper Social Club and Michael Moore.
So it turns out that at the local Best Buy here in Phoenix, Arizona, I find many examples of these folks’ work still for sale. Moore’s videos, for example, still seem to be available for purchase. [...]

I think folks know I am a proponent of open immigration, and so, as in the war on drugs, I don’t condone adding more government powers to enforce a pointless prohibition. But there are many folks here who have supported far more authoritarian legislation than the AZ immigration law. For God sakes in Sicko Michael Moore wrote a long love note to Castro’s Cuba.
For double dissonance Moore opposes a regime which keeps people from entering Arizona (as do I) but supports a regime which keeps people from exiting Cuba.  How do you square that circle?  The right to get out has got to be more important that the right to get in, and I happen to think the latter is a pretty big deal.

Deleted Harry Potter Character

From College Humor:

I'm with Kenny on this one.

I wouldn't mind this sort of thing so much if Harry Potter fans accepted the books as fun larks (which they certainly are) and stopped going on about how rich, and detailed, and well-thought-out the HP universe was.

25 May 2010


Attention, Internet:

Henceforth Future Mrs. South Bend 7 shall be known as Mrs. South Bend 7.  That is all.

PS "Special Lady Friend" shall remain an acceptable appellation.

13 May 2010

Step we gaily on we go / Heel for heel and toe for toe / Arm in arm and row and row / All for Mairi's wedding

No blogging for the near future.

I'll be busy getting married.  HUZZAH.

Iron Man 2

Threat Quality Press | Braak | Chris versus the Movies: A Case for Iron Man 2

I was not bored the whole time, because [Iron Man 2] has things that I like: quirky characters, humor, and flying robot battles. Those things are just there, and if you don’t like those things, then don’t bother reading any further, because I don’t think I can defend Iron Man 2 to you.

(Maybe you think the part where he creates a new element in his basement is ridiculous pseudo-science. Well, look, that’s correct, but whether you appreciate it or not depends on how you say it. If you say, “What? Did he just build a supercollider in his basement?” then you’ll probably think it’s crazy. If you say it like, “What!?!?!? Did he just build a SUPERCOLLIDER in his BASEMENT?” then you’ll probably think it’s crazy AWESOME.)
You know what bugged me about that scene?

(1) There's no need to involve preposterously ridiculous psuedo-science when regularly ridiculous pseudo-science would have done just as well. If they had replaced "Tony Stark discovers a new element" with "Tony Strak discovers a new alloy" the whole story would have worked just fine.

(2) His super heated laser beam thing slices right through his flammables locker. Let me repeat that: A flammables locker is cut through with a laser torch. It is in two pieces. Burning. I presume these set dressing people have been near a workshop before and know what the purpose of a flammables locker is. Propping up his home-brew particle accelerator with [name of prop redacted] doesn't bother me at all. That's just winking fun. Torching through a locker specifically designed to hold highly ignitable materials bothers me because it's completely unnecessary.

Okay, enough griping. I enjoyed Iron Man 2. I'm having trouble expressing why I was a little less enthusiastic than I was with the first movie. The best I can come up with was that this one was a little more restrained, a little more "Continuing Adventures of Iron Man" and a little less "Holy Shit It's A Robot Man Who's Also Good With The Ladies And Vomits One Liners KABOOM!" I actually like the balance of action scenes to non-action scenes better in the sequel. The humor was good.  The character work was good.  The fight scenes were good.  I guess I'm a little hesitant because I don't feel like Favreau & Marvel Productions really put the pedal to the floor on this one because they were holding back a little for Avengers.  I'm looking forward to revisiting this when (if?) they pull of the whole Avengers cycle and seeing how it works then.

Anyway, go read Braak's review. I think he's got a good handle on it, and he knows story.

12 May 2010

This is what "the line" looks like for immigrants.

Click to enlarge:

Thanks to Angus at KPC for posting this cartoon from Mike Flynn, Shikha Dalmia and Terry Colon. I remember seeing it in the October 2008 Reason. It ought to be more widely distributed.

National borders have to moral weight

LabRat has a good post about illegal immigration and the anti-humanist, communitarian thought that dominates both the for and against camps. Worth reading. I just want to highlight the beginning.
There are people coming across our border illegally who are there to take advantage of our much looser class structure and freer markets to carve out a better life for themselves and their families on raw work ethic and force of will. They are a tremendous asset to our economy and, if all of them could be deported at once today, several industries in several border states and port cities would likely collapse immediately. They would be citizens if they thought they could.

There are people coming across our border illegally who are there to take advantage of our generous public benefits in the realms of education, health care, and welfare for the unemployed. They have no intention of working as hard as the first group or maybe at all and they are a constant drain on our public resources. The only relevance citizenship has to them is more secure benefits access.
As LabRat says, these things are both true, at the same time.

And just like there are lolligaggers coming across the border to mooch of other people's work, there are people who have spent their entire lives as American citizens mooching off other people's work. I don't see how it's any more appropriate to deport foreign born moochers than it is to exile native born moochers.

Why are we obligated to extend public assistance to the lazy who were born between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel but not those born elsewhere? By what logic do we rob Peter to pay Paul, but only if Paul was born near Peter?

Abrogate justice — fer tha childrun!

Popehat | Ken | The Tonya Craft Case: The Mask Slips Off

For the most part, our criminal justice system does an adequate job of creating a minimally credible appearance of due process and the rule of law. Judges grant the occasional defense motion, some stupendously ridiculous prosecutorial demands are rebuffed, and the judiciary even occasionally holds the state accountable for its own misconduct.

When kids are involved, though, all bets are off. The mask slips away, and the system is revealed at its worst: as a mechanism to accept, uncritically, the demands and accusations of the state, and to evade such impediments as the rule of law may pose to putting somebody in jail.

Over the last two years, Tonya Craft learned that the hard way.
Next time you're in a court room and tempted to take the judicial system too seriously remember that the guy behind the big, fancy desk at the front of the room thinks it's a good idea to wear a costume to work every day.

Sure, you might get something approaching justice from him, but then again you might get justice from the schmuck telling bawdy jokes in the ale tent at the Renn Faire. There's no ontological change that happens to people when the get judgeships. They're just as petty and fallible and fearful and foolish as the rest of us.


I have little to say about the nomination of Kagan, so of course I'm now going to say things about this matter.

I think I like her about as much as I could like an Obama nominee.  She seems pretty well respected by the people who have had to work with her, unlike Sotomayor.  People who know way more about the law than I do seem to think she's solid.  They're optimistic in particular that she is dispassionate enough about the law and views it mechanistically and technically enough that she will not try to shoe horn cases into whatever her desired outcome is.  She's not been a judge though, so who knows?

Speaking of not being a judge, I rather like it.  I'd prefer someone who had done something outside law schools and public sector legal work, but Obama can't even find people outside that realm for his cabinet so there's zero chance he'd find someone fitting that bill for the Court.  We're still no closer to breaking out of the Harvard/Yale law duopoly, but I didn't really expect we would be.

Kagan is speculated to be gay, right?  (Obviously I have not been reading up on this.  Wasn't there a dust-up a couple of weeks ago when some White House spokesman denied rumors she was too vociferously?  I seem to remember comparisons to the "not that there's anything wrong with that" episode of Seinfeld.)  I don't care as much about her sexual orientation as I do that her surname may be etymologically linked to the Old Turkic title translated as "King of Kings," which is to say, I don't really care about either at all.  Like I've said previously, I'm much more interested in getting some diversity of career history on the court than any other kind.

I've also seen more than a few people say she botched her arguements in Citizens United and US v Stevens by drastically over reaching, but as far as I'm concerned she did me a favor by dropping the ball on those because the government was wrong.

This is the most troubling thing about her I have read:
The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | The Judge in the Gray Flannel Suit

But I do think that David Brooks is onto something when he notes that her relentless careerism, her pitch-perfect blandness, are a little creepy. Not in themselves, but because they're a symptom of a culture that increasingly values what Brooks calls Organization Kids: the driven, hyperachieving spawn of the Ivy League meritocracy who began practicing Supreme Court nomination acceptances and CEO profile photo poses long before they took notice of the opposite sex.

What's disturbing is that this is what our nomination process now selects for: someone who appears to be in favor of nothing except self-advancement. Then we complain when the most passionate advocates for ideas are the lunatic fringe.
I think that last point is especially worth keeping in mind.

This is also related to why other "passionate advocates for ideas" are so often people like Bono. They don't have to worry about being palatable since they're already rich. On the other hand, they don't have to worry about being right either.

Civilization, migration and the median man

Arnold Kling calls attention to this passage:
Gene Expression | Razib | Cross-societal comparisons then & now

I think it is critical to emphasize why ancient barbarian elites were so keen on conquering civilized states, and why there seems to have been less mass migration of the peasantry. In the modern world when we think of differences between societies in regards to wealth, complexity or glory, we consider the median man on the street. This would tell us little for most of human history, rather, we would have to focus on the top 10% to truly get a sense of the difference, and in particular the top 1%. To a great extent civilization has been a racket which operates to the benefit of the tiny elite by making rent-seeking much more efficient.
[I will run the risk of commenting without reading the rest of the piece, so continue at your own risk.]

Is this really true? Certainly it's worth keeping in mind, but is the condition of the median man really that uninformative? I'm sympathetic to the view of civilization as a racket for the powerful, but has civilization been that useless for the little guy?

If you were going to be a middle-of-the-pack farmer in 150 BC would you care whether you were a citizen of the Roman Republic or Ptolemaic Egypt or Han China or in the wilderness with the wandering Gauls or Tocharians? I certainly would. Maybe I just don't know enough about it though.

The condition of the median man, hell even that of the very bottom guy on the ladder, has improved immensely as history has marched on and "civilization" has spread. Maybe most of the regime changes between now and then have been beggars changing places and lashings going on, but on aggregate it seems to have worked out well for everybody, top, middle and bottom.

Maybe this is in spite of, and not due to, the conflicts of civilizations an barbarians though?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS — Listening to this week's History of Rome Podcast on the Marcomannic Wars I learned that there were three basic ways the Romans of the 2nd century bought off the Germanic tribes: with cash payments, with exemptions from Roman import duties, and by granting permission to move east and south to settle in imperial territory.  The latter was apparently the most sought after, so those Germans at least valued migration into civilization.

11 May 2010

Riot Dog

Now I have a vision of American SWAT teams facing off against packs of angry Riot Dogs.

Actually, that might make a decent comic book.  Somewhere between We3 and the hive-mind dog packs of A Fire Upon The Deep.

(Via World's Best Ever)

10 May 2010

Evasive action

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Facts about Europe
The country in Europe with the biggest untaxed, or “shadow,” economy as a proportion of GDP is Greece. Next is (gulp) Italy. Then Portugal and Spain. On the chart below, in fact, the bars look unsettlingly like dominoes.
There is more information and a good chart here. There is this too:
Massive tax evasion helps produce large public-sector deficits.
"Helps produce," sure. But it's neither necessary nor sufficient. If there was no tax evasion but everything else stayed the same you could significantly reduce deficits. But when does everything else stay the same?

Say you have a widget factory, and there's a five percent inefficiency in your process so you can produce 95 one-pound widgets for every 100 lbs of supplies.* This 5% inefficiency has always been there and appears that it always will be.

(* I use the term "inefficiency" very loosely here.  Deal with it.)

You sign a contract to deliver 1000 widgets. Then you order 1000 lbs of supplies. Only 950 widgets come out of your factory, leaving you with a 5% deficit.  Does it make any sense to blame that deficit on the 5% inefficiency in your manufacturing process? Of course not. You should have accounted for that before promising to deliver 1000 widgets.

The Greeks, Italians, etc. have chronic tax evasion. They should be planning for that. They promised to deliver more government spending than they had government revenue. Period. It doesn't matter if revenue is short because of evasion or any other reason — their egos politicians wrote checks their body treasuries couldn't cash.

"people and institutions thinking they are more wealthy than they are"

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Simple thoughts on Europe

1. The fundamental cause of the financial crisis has been people and institutions thinking they are more wealthy than they are; this spread to Europe as well and now we are seeing the comeuppance.
The other ten points are interesting, but this is the one sentence prime mover of the brouhaha of the last two years. (And because of Cowen's ninth points ["This doesn't solve any of the basic fiscal problems, so ultimately it raises the stakes and creates a chance of even greater financial failure."] probably many years in the future as well.

Related: Fannie Mae seeks another $8.4 B from taxpayers after posting a 1Q loss of $13.1B. People are not as wealthy as the think they are, and that means they are not wealthy enough to purchase the sorts of houses they have been and — largely — continue to. The quicker we realize that and adjust our mental states the better.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I see a corollary to Cowen's points in the normalization of deviances. People (mortgagers, MBS traders, Greek finance ministers, eurocrats) did things that were ill-advised by all reasonable analysis. And yet Fate did not rear up and bite them on the ass, so they began to believe that the advice and analysis was wrong. These bad risks were seen as being safer and more acceptable, and even though no one could figure out why the analysis was wrong it was ignored. Then Fate got up from it's nap and ... well then we got something this:

Except unlike Columbia the debris field landed on everyone's heads and a bunch of governments decided that they were going to hand out steel umbrellas but only to the people who took the bad risks in the first place.  The end.

Would a tomato by any other name would be taxed as highly?

Watch the first thirty seconds of this podcast and tell me if you think the judiciary is a determiner of Truth, or just a hackish approximator for dispute resolution.

Bonus: this is also an example of ways in which I don't want legislators fiddling the control knobs of society through the arcana of tax policy.

07 May 2010

Labor mobility and language (PS)

Just as easily as I asked why the Greeks (and Portuguese, and ...) don't learn German (or English, or ...) I could ask why the Germans don't hire Greek translators.  There are certainly plenty of companies in America that find it worthwhile to employ foremen who speak English and Spanish to work with Spanish-only laborers.  Does such an arrangement exist as commonly in Europe?  My hunch is that it does not.  Why not?  What is it about German (and other "rich" European) employers and Greek (and other "poor" European) labor that this is not worthwhile?

The facile answer is that too many Greek workers are only experienced as civil servants and these skills (if we can call them skills — cheap shot but I couldn't resist) do not travel well.  I have seen many conflicting reports of how many civil servants there are in Greece though, so I do not want to rely on this.

"Does a Common Currency Area Need a Centralized Fiscal Authority?"

Greg Mankiw's Blog | Does a Common Currency Area Need a Centralized Fiscal Authority?

A final possibility is that the key difference is labor mobility: Americans were willing to move among the states, whereas Greeks have to stay in Greece because they don't speak German.
Assuming, arguendo, this is true (and I think it's more true than not) it requires us to ask why the Greeks don't speak German. Have you seen how many Poles are working in the UK? Why will they learn another language when the Greeks won't?  Obviously this is harder than moving between states, but plenty of others move between language areas.

This is as good a chance as any to post Mark Knopfler's "Why Aye Man," about (English-speaking) Geordies moving to Germany to find work in the 1980s recession.

"The Dirty College Admissions Trick" cuts both ways

The Daily Beast | Marc Zawel | The Dirty College Admissions Trick

Along with the ultra-low admit rates came swelling waitlists. Cornell wait-listed 2,563 students. Amherst: 1,098—about the same number of applicants it admitted. At Duke, the number was north of 3,000. And the University of California and the California State University systems put applicants on waiting lists for the first time ever.
This article is about how slimy it is that some kids tell more than one college that they're attending because they can't make up their minds by the response deadline. I agree this is a completely dishonest thing to do, but the passage above is what caught my eye.

I find these overly-long wait lists unethical as well.  Putting people on a wait list when there's essentially no chance of them ever being accepted is completely rude thing to do.  I remember when I applied to Stanford they said (off the record of course) that they put two decimal orders of magnitude more people on the wait list than they let in from the wait list every year.  They were also surprised several months later when I turned down a position on their wait list.

Cornell has a freshman class of 3500, and they wait listed 2500, or 71%.
Amherst: 425 incoming freshmen, wait listed 1098, or 258%.
Duke: 1600 matriculants, wait list of 3000, for 188%.

There's no way you can explain a wait-list as larger than the incoming class by people double dipping their acceptances.  A wait list of that length is ridiculously long even if every single person originally admitted turned the school down.

I've always wondered what's behind this.  I can only come up with two theories, neither of which I'm thrilled with.  (1) It makes the meetings of the admissions staff more friendly when they can't decide whether to admit or reject someone.  If they decide to throw the marginal kid in the wait list pile none of the coworkers feel like their opinion was denied outright.  (2) The applicant doesn't feel embittered about your school if they thought they deserved to get in.  Maybe they'll still like the college enough to encourage their younger siblings or cousins or friends or children to apply when they wouldn't have if they had been rejected honestly.

06 May 2010

Computational Analysis of Literature & Language

Go and listen to Radiolab's 17 minute episode on computational analysis of language, detective novels, nuns, and Alzheimer's.  Seriously, go listen to this.

At the risk of upsetting Special Lady Friend, who got her Masters in English, this is what the academic English establishment ought to be doing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Science is what we understand well enough to explain to a computer. Art is everything else we do.
— Donald Knuth, foreword to A=B

If in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics.
— Roger Bacon, Opus Majus

If we take into our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
— David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Challenge! -or- Qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur.

Background: a multitude of cops, firemen, EMTs, teachers, etc. claim stacks of extra pay for overtime they haven't done, pay raises for certificates and degrees they haven't earned, etc.
dispatches from TJICistan | tjic | [ quarter ] million dollar babies

Maybe what our police need is a challenge system: any citizen can legally challenge a cop to a 15 minute written test of his “certified” skills. If the cop passes, the citizen pays him $100. If the cop fails, he forfeits all of the pay bump from the certification, going back two years. Half goes to the treasury, half goes to the citizen.

After all, if we (“we”) believe that individuals suing businesses under the ADA for the purpose of changing behavior and winning awards for themselves is a win, then clearly suing corrupt union cops to promote change is a win as well.
Not a bad idea. It's not dissimilar to the theory behind the False Claims Act, which I've always been a little suspicious of because it allows citizens to sue only non-government employees for defrauding taxpayers. (If I recall my professional ethics class correctly.) A law like that would have been really useful across the pond before the expenses scandal of last year, not to mention any of a dozen or so cases of fraud in and around DC, for instance this eight figure scam, to pick one.

Respice post te! Hominem te memento!

Brian Dunbar | Getting close to understanding something important

Presented without comment
You feel you’re getting close to understanding something important when you hear Valerie Jarrett, the President’s confidante and adviser, say of him: “He knows exactly how smart he is…. He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
Attention "ordinary people" —be afraid.

I'll let others do my commenting for me:

It is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires and why so many despots have led their countries into disasters.
— Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society

The fact is that up to now a free society has not been good for the intellectual. It has neither accorded him a superior status to sustain his confidence nor made it easy for him to acquire an unquestioned sense of social usefulness. For he derives his sense of usefulness mainly from directing, instructing, and planning- from minding other people's business- and is bound to feel superfluous and neglected where people believe themselves competent to manage individual and communal affairs, and are impatient of supervision and regulation. A free society is as much a threat to the intellectual's sense of worth as an automated economy is to the workingman's sense of worth. Any social order that can function with a minimum of leadership will be anathema to the intellectual.
— Eric Hoffer, The Ordeal of Change

The theory behind representative government is that superior men—or at all events, men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity—are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honesty. There is little support for that theory in the known facts.
— HL Mencken

And don't EVER make the mistake that you can design something better than what you get from ruthless massively parallel trial-and-error with a feedback cycle. That's giving your intelligence much too much credit.
— Linus Torvalds

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
— T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland," 320-321

Speech Unrecognition

Kids Prefer Cheese | Munger | Speech Unrecognition

It is very interesting that there is a huge difference between speech to text, and text to speech. [...]

It is rather amazing that the reverse process, speaking and having the computer record the words, basically doesn't work at all. Optical scanning works quite well, with error rates below 5%. But audio speech-to-text... 80%, tops, and even then you are better off typing it straight from voice, for most purposes.
Is this really that unexpected? How many times do you have to say "I'm sorry, what did you say?" when speaking with someone, especially someone unfamiliar to you? And how many times do you find yourself unable to read someone's hand writing? For me the former is much more common. OCR is typically working off of other computer generated glyphs (i.e. printed material) which makes it even easier than hand-writing recognition.

Maybe I've just been in CS too long, but it would never occur to me that speech-to-text and text-to-speech would be anything but completely separate tasks with totally independent error rates.

Part of the difference, by the way, has to do with the dimensionality of the functions. There are many — but not that many — ways to pronounce each letter. It is an easier task to see a grapheme and then determine which of the corresponding phonemes to use than it is to hear any phoneme in a language and determine which combinations of glyphs should be used to represent that sound. It's not a 1:1, invertible function which means one direction is bound to be harder than the other.

(This is my third (fourth?) post on speech recognition this week. Weird. I guess I just get all excited to see some computer science popping up in the blogosphere. I don't get much of that, especially in the regions of blogspace I hang out in.)

05 May 2010

"But still...."

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Steve Bainbridge | "But still...." A Fitting Epitaph for Freedom

From HuffPo:
The morning after the arrest of 30-year-old Faisal Shahzad at John F. Kennedy airport on Monday evening, the usual suspects in the GOP took to print and the airwaves to whack away at the president and his top lawyer. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) mocked the idea that Attorney General Eric Holder might read the suspect his Miranda rights or consider trying him in a civilian court.

"I hope that [Attorney General Eric] Holder did discuss this with the intelligence community. If they believe they got enough from him, how much more should they get? Did they Mirandize him? I know he's an American citizen but still," King said.
"But still...." It would make a fitting epitaph for freedom.
Rope. Not for Shahzad. For Peter King. He's a bigger threat to America than some half-assed bomber will ever be. And he took an oath to defend the constitution and laws of this country. A country, I may add, WHERE THERE ARE RULES ABOUT THIS SORT OF THING.

He can swing right next to Joe Lieberman, who thinks that you should forfeit your citizenship and all accompanying rights, for being SUSPECTED of terrorism.
In arguing against the reading of Miranda rights to terrorism suspects or affording them other constitutional protections, opponents of civil liberties run up against a powerful argument when dealing with American citizens.
Joe Lieberman has a creative solution: Take away their citizenship. "If you've joined an enemy of the United States in attacking the United States and trying to kill Americans, I think you should sacrifice your rights of citizenship,"
How in the name of Sacco and Vanzetti do you know someone has actually attacked the United States until you go through all those pesky hassles like giving them a fair trial? You just take Joe Lieberman and all his powerful friends' word for it?

There's a reason that the Constitution specifically mentions that you need at least witnesses to convict somebody of treason. They didn't bother specifying the requirements for any other crime. That's because they new spurious accusations of treason were very dangerous and very likely to get lobbed around to gain political position.  Shame and pox on Lieberman for forsaken his sworn duty to protect the constitution.

PS Don't think I'm letting McCain off the hook for saying Shahzad shouldn't have been Mirandized either. In addition to his disgusting authoritarianism, McCain displays profound ignorance:
John McCain’s wish that the suspected Times Square bomber not be Mirandized is…well…stupid and a sign that maybe McCain shouldn’t be tasked with legislating since he knows so very little about laws. Miranda doesn’t grant suspected criminals their rights. It informs them of the rights they already have. Not reading him his rights just risks having good evidence thrown out of court and makes a conviction of a potentially very dangerous person harder to achieve. This is really just head shakingly stupid and/or careless pandering, neither of which is at all respectable or, for that matter, forgivable.

Speech Recognition & AI, again

The Cranky Professor | Speech Recognition Fail

The end of the pursuit of speech recognition for computers - and how it may mean that artificial intelligence will never get here either:
The accuracy of computer speech recognition flat-lined in 2001, before reaching human levels. The funding plug was pulled, but no funeral, no text-to-speech eulogy followed. Words never meant very much to computers--which made them ten times more error-prone than humans. Humans expected that computer understanding of language would lead to artificially intelligent machines, inevitably and quickly. But the mispredicted words of speech recognition have rewritten that narrative. We just haven't recognized it yet.
via Marginal Revolution
I also don't know anybody else in the AI community that thought speech recognition was the route to artificially intelligent machines.

At the risk of commenting before reading the rest of the article the good Professor links to, I think there may be some conflation going on between speech recognition and natural language processing, which has a much stronger link to AI.  (Though I don't think anybody outside of NLP thought it was, is, or will be the best route to strong AI either.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Part of the reason people don't seem to see a lot of progress in AI is that the goal posts keep moving.  We get used to computers' new capabilities remarkably quickly, and we cease to see them as AI.  Game playing is a good example of this.  Getting computers to be competitive with humans in things like chess used to be a hugely active area in the field.  Now that they dominate humans though it's passe, it's just a bunch of state-space search algorithms and some optimized hardware.

A vast majority of our AI applications are still way behind even simple mammals in their capabilities.  But it's still important to keep in mind that they're also way ahead of what many people thought was possible a generation ago.

Go back to Turing's 1950 paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," in which he introduced the now famous "Turing Test." He discussed nine possible objections to the notion that machines could be capable of thinking. One of the most well known, and common, is Lady Lovelace's Objection:
The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.
A lot of people believed this in 1950. A lot of people believe this today. But we live in a world in which machines can independently rediscover Newton's Laws of Motion, develop patentable inventions, and design a whole new class of antenna now in use on satellites.

None of that is proof that machines will ever rival even lab rats in intelligence, but it is reason to be a little more optimistic about the future of AI than a lot of people are.  Not as optimistic as Kurzweil, Moravec, et al., mind you, but optimistic all the same.

04 May 2010

Farmers' Markets sans Farmers

WSJ | Lauren Etter | Food for Thought: Do You Need Farmers for a Farmers Market?

Tomah, Wis.—Farmers markets, with their hodgepodge of organic kale, artisan rye bread and peach preserves, have surged in popularity in recent years. But now authorities are questioning whether they're missing a crucial ingredient: real farmers.

Here in Tomah, where a farmers market has operated for the past decade in a grassy downtown park, a nasty dispute has cropped up. Local farmer Ronald Waege, who grows his own apples and blueberries just outside of town, says resellers are buying up produce at an auction and peddling it here, sometimes undercutting his own prices. Mr. Waege, who insists he's looking after the interests of consumers, has prodded the Tomah City Council to decide whether or not to ban resellers from the market. The council plans to vote on the issue next month.
This story amuses me way more than it ought to.

On the one hand sellers should not be misleading consumers about the source of their produce.

On the other hand producers who try and get the government to hobble their competitors are NEVER looking out for the consumer. They're in it for numero uno. If you can't get your produce to market for less than the combined operation of a farmer and an auctioneer and a middle man that's your problem. Don't use the government to force consumers to pay higher prices to preserve your business and paper it over with some aesthetic preference about "authenticity" of farmers.

XKCD & Epiphenomenal Qualia

Randall Munroe's survey results on how people perceive and name colors has been making the rounds since he posted it yesterday. Results are definitely worth a look.

Color fascinates me because it is a great example of the subjectivity of experience and knowledge. 2+2 will always be 4, no matter who says otherwise or what words we use to describe it. But "red" ... what is "red"? Even if you and I agreed on exactly what wavelength of light corresponded to red and viewed that light in exactly the same conditions, can I ever be sure that you and I are experiencing the exact same mental state when it comes to redness?

If you read only one article on cognitive science and philosophy this year, make it Frank Jackson's 1982 paper "Epiphenomenal Qualia." Here's how Wikipedia describes the central conceit:
The ["Mary's Room"] thought experiment was originally proposed by Frank Jackson as follows:
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. [...] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
In other words, Jackson's Mary is a scientist who knows everything there is to know about the science of color, but has never experienced color. The question that Jackson raises is: once she experiences color, does she learn anything new?

Ontologically, the following argument is contained in the thought experiment:

(P1) Any and every piece of physical knowledge in regards to human color vision has been obtained (by the test subject, Mary) prior to her release from the black-and-white room. She has all the physical knowledge on the subject.

(P2) Upon leaving the room and witnessing color first-hand, she obtains new knowledge.

(C) There was some knowledge about human color vision she did not have prior to her release. Therefore, not all knowledge is physical knowledge.

(PS If you were to read a second paper in this vein, make it Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat," from 1974.)

"The Singularity is Not so Near"

EconLog | Arnold Kling | The Singularity is Not so Near

Via a Tyler Cowen tweet, Robert Fortner writes,
The accuracy of computer speech recognition flat-lined in 2001, before reaching human levels.
Raw computer power is not enough to solve complex problems. That is why predicting that we will have brain emulation when we have as many logic gates in a computer as neurons in a human brain is silly. Five years ago, I noticed a pattern in the over-optimism of Ray Kurzweil's predictions.
Generally speaking, the more open-ended the problem and the more adaptive that the machine needs to be to provide a solution, the less far along we are in arriving at a technological solution.
I have never met a fellow computer scientist who finds Kurzweil convincing. That should tell you all something about his claims about computation.

Friedman's Immigration Argument

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | Milton Friedman, the Welfare State, and Immigration

Many of you have written to me to express the same thought – to wit: Even Milton FriedmanMilton Friedman! – said that the U.S. can’t return to the more-open immigration regime that we had until the 1920s as long as we have a welfare state.

Friedman did indeed take this position.

I just submitted my next column to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; it addresses this very issue. When it is published, I’ll link to it here at the Cafe. You will then be able to read, if you’re interested, (some of) my objections to Friedman’s surprisingly poorly thought-out position on this issue.
I'm looking forward to hearing what Boudreaux has to say.

I used to find Friedman's arguement quite convincing, but in recent years I have soured on it for a number of reasons.

(1) Empirically, it seems most illegal immigrants are net contributors to the economy. Legalizing their status and taxing them would be a further gain compared to leaving them in the black market.

(2) I'm quite amenable to plans to sell work permits, preferably through higher tax rates on foreign workers in residence for a set number of years. This would have the added benefit of attracting more highly skilled workers in addition to defraying the cost (if indeed there is a positive one) of opening borders.

(3) I have become increasingly convinced that the Right of Exit from a regime is fundamental.  Exiting is rather meaningless unless there is somewhere to exit to, and since there is no terra nullius right now it behooves anyone who would want to be able to exit to grant others the complementary ability to enter.

(4) Most importantly, if there are two policies which can not co-exist from a utilitarian standpoint, and one of those policies is unambiguously moral (open borders) while the other is of debatable morality (welfare) there is no justification for perpetuating the ambiguously moral policy just because it is politically more practical.

PS A word about #4.  I say the morality of welfare is debatable because it necessarily involves taking from some people.  Maybe that's worth it, maybe the net effect is positive, maybe the people you take from don't need or deserve what you've taken, whatever.  There's still coercion and violence going on no matter how worthwhile it is or how noble of an intention it may serve.  Open immigration, on the other hand, is a lack of coercion.  If some guy with an apartment in Texas wants to rent it to a guy from Honduras, or some guy has a shrub in Phoenix and wants to hire a guy from El Salvador to trim it, I have no basis to prohibit them from doing that.

03 May 2010

Graph Studies: Facebook Privacy

From Xn Jrdn at bng bng:

In an essay and handy infographic, DeObfuscate lays out the inverse relationship between Facebook's growing market share and the erosion of user privacy.

I just want to draw your attention to the top label on that plot: "Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces that he 'knows people don't want privacy,' despite the growth of his company through once positive privacy practices."

First of all, revealed preference. Second of all, the whole point of this graph is to try and show that Facebook has grown while their privacy policy has worsened. That label claims they grew when they had good privacy. The rest of the graph claims they have grown when they had bad privacy. Aren't those at odds?  Rather than being an inverse relationship as Xeni Jardin claims this rather self-evidently shows there to be no correlation between market share and privacy by the graph's own claims.

I'm not even sure what that "market share" label on the y-axis means.  It's supposed to be for "'general' social networking" but what does that mean? 84% of all users with social networking accounts use only Facebook?  For that matter, what does having a monopoly on a service you give away and users can opt out of at any time mean? I've been hazy on that ever since the brouhaha over MSFT bundling IE with Windows.

Jardin concludes with this:
Finally, words of wisdom tweeted by Tim Spalding over the weekend:
Why do free social networks tilt inevitably toward user exploitation? Because you're not their customer, you're their product.
Specious. I'm not the customer of NBC, or the Washington Post or any other ad-supported industry, I'm their product. Just like Facebook they sell my eyeballs to advertisers. And yet I'm not exploited by them. Explain that discrepancy.

Hell, I'm not paying for Boing Boing either. Does that mean they're inevitably exploiting me?

People put up with "exploitation" from Facebook because (a) they don't think they are being exploited, (b) they're getting a product for free so they put up with some shit, and (c) they benefit from the network effects of being on the same platform as their friends.

I don't particularly like Facebook or their privacy policies, or Mark Zuckerberg. But I dislike shoddy arguments even more.

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“If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies... It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.
— Albert Einstein