31 January 2011

Kitchen Innovation

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | The Kitchen Test

Here is Paul Krugman, noting that innovations for the kitchen have slowed down. [...]

Alexander J. Field has a long and very good piece on the evolution of kitchen technology. He concludes:
Aside from the automatic dishwasher in the 1930s (which achieved significant penetration only beginning in the 1960s), the garbage disposer (introduced in the 1950s, but low penetration until the late 1960s) and the microwave oven in the 1970s, there have been no truly revolutionary kitchen appliances in the last eight decades.
Field makes good fun of the electric can opener and the electric carving knife.
My response is "So what?"

When you say "innovation" people naturally think of devices. But innovation in processes is just as important.*

Let's say there are no new devices for the kitchen. (Though I would hardly scoff at those listed.) There are numerous new techniques, or techniques not available to the average home cook of fifty years ago. Even if the hardware and processes have not changed enough for your tastes, there are numerous new inputs (i.e. ingredients) that were not available fifty years back.

Advances outside the kitchen have huge impact within it. Advances in air travel, greenhouse construction, and logistics in general make ingredients more available in space and time. Advances in television and internet make more recipes and techniques available.

General progress in production makes it possible for my wife and I to own many more older technologies than we would have fifty years ago, even though all of those things existed then.  Lower construction and maintenance costs and associated changes make it possible to have larger kitchens than previously possible: more storage, more prep area but the same types of appliances is still a big improvement.

Finally, do not knock incremental innovation.  Would you trade your refrigerator for the one your grandparents might have owned?  (Don't forget you'd have to pay the electrical bill for their fridge, not yours.)

One other thing: do we want lots of qualitative change in kitchen appliances and devices?  Is there demand for that?  Is that the best use of finite innovation resources?  I for one am happy with the things in my kitchen now, especially since I rent.  I would like to see new audiovisual equipment, home networking, and IT in transportation.  Kitchen advancement is not high on my list.

~ ~ ~

* Keep this in mind when people talk about medical innovation.  New scanners and new drugs are great, but what about innovations in process?  Where are the new business models in medicine?  That side of innovation is often discouraged or even effectively disallowed in many jurisdictions.

** Do not forget to include the immersion circulator on the list of new cooking devices.  They, and the sous vide technique for them, did not enter restaurant kitchens until the 1970s.  (The process is much older but was effectively lost and then "rediscovered" within the last fifty years.)  They are not in widespread home use yet, but I predict they will be before too long.  If people have slow cookers, dedicated bread machines and rice cookers, then a sous vide appliance is not that off the wall.

~ ~ ~

PS Freakonomics Radio covered cooking innovation, contrasting Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse and originator of the "slow food movement" (at least in America) with Nathan Myhrvold, scientist, economist, engineer, former Microsoft CTO and co-author of the 2400 page Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.  There is a strong and growing number of people who actively resist advancements in the kitchen in a way that is rare in other disciplines.  There is a cultural movement built around continuing or returning to cooking the way our grandparents did.  Where is the same movement for cleaning, or building, or traveling the way they did?

PPS Edited to Add — Megan McArdle adds an important cooking innovation you don't find in the kitchen or in the supply chain: air conditioning.  Residential climate control means no more worrying about firing up the oven in the summertime.  She has several other good points, including the cost of ingredients falling so precipitously that "food prepared at home" has dropped from down below 10% of the average household budget from a whopping 30% in 1950.  I try to watch my pennies at the grocery, but even being a poor grad student of stingy Scottish heritage I do not fret about the cost of a single egg like many average middle class housewives of the middle century apparently did.

Titular Terseness

Cheap Talk | Jeff | Titles

Do you know the name of the first bank in the United States? The First Bank of The United States of course. How about the second bank? The Second Bank of the United States. And after that it seems like every time a bank opens in a new place for the first time that bank calls itself First Bank of The New Place. (Try your favorite place. Here’s mine.)

Why? Because only the first can be The First. If people trust banks more the longer they have been around, then in equilibrium the first bank will call itself the First Bank and everyone will know who was first.

Titles of papers have something in common with names of banks. A paper titled Law and Finance is guaranteed to be the seminal paper in the field because if it were not then that title would have already been taken. You can go ahead and cite it without actually reading it. By contrast, you can safely ignore a paper with a title like Valuation and Dynamic Replication of Contingent Claims in a General Market Enviornmnet Based on the Beliefs-Preferences Guage Symmetry even if you don’t know what any of those words mean. The title is essentially telling you “Don’t read me. Instead go and read a paper whose title is simply Valuation of Contingent Claims. If you have any questions after reading that, you might look into dynamic replication and then beliefs, preferences, and if after all that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for, check here for the lowdown on guage symmetry.”

Two pieces of advice follow from these observations. First, find the simplest title not yet taken for your papers. One word titles are the best. Second, before you get started on a paper, think about the title. If you can’t come up with a short title for it then its probably not worth writing.
I like the first piece of advice. There are not, unfortunately, many things in Computer Science with one-word names.

The second might be good for either established scholars or people in Econ, but I think it is a luxury you can not afford in my field.  At least one I can not afford.  Nonetheless, I will make parsimonious titles a goal in the future.

An important question is whether editors or reviewers will let you get away with this. Such titles set expectations that a paper is either seminal or a survey/review article. If it is good but neither of those things it may be held against you. Even if it is seminal they may want a title that links it into previous work: it is difficult to know what will be seminal and what is just fringe in advance.

Another concern is whether more information in titles will attract more readers. The paper on the top of my stack right now is "A composite neural network model for perseveration and distractibility in the Wisconsin card sorting test." (Kaplan, Sengor, Gurvit, Genc & Guzelis, 2006.) I'm interested in both neural nets and the WCST.  I know what this paper is about and that I am interested in the subject matter without even reading the abstract. I see a title like that in someone else's Works Cited and I immediately add it to my library to be read.

I know this feeling

I can sympathize with today's PhD:

The stack of papers with the "Read: To Be Filed" label is growing at a satisfying pace.

But everyone one of those has a post it note with three or four references from it to track down, so the stack labeled "To Be Read" is growing several times faster.

Sometimes I feel like Big Anthony, but instead of pasta, I'm being over run with articles.

"Water Sculpture"


I like the combination of shadow and specular highlights on the table; these would make an interesting collection of photographs. A camera set up obliquely to the table with the proper transforms could capture them well.

29 January 2011

Grad school

The Labor Market for Philosophers, Bryan Caplan | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty

Michael Huemer isn't just my favorite living philosopher; he's also amazingly perceptive about the real world. The latest example: His FAQ on "Should I Go to Grad School in Philosophy?" Highlights:
7. But I'm really smart, so I'll be one of the few at the elite schools, right?

Probably not. However smart you may be, when you apply for that coveted position at the University of Colorado, your application will go into a pile of 300 others, of which at least 20 will look about equally good. All 20 of those people will have been the best philosophy students at their colleges. Think about the smartest person you have ever known. Now imagine that there are 20 copies of that person competing with you for a job. That is roughly what it will be like.
Overall Huemer's FAQ seems very negative, but that does not mean it is not true.

I think #7 is good advice for any discipline. At least it is for Computer Science, which is the only thing I can speak to.

It is advice I wish I had drilled in to me before applying for PhD programs. I still would have chosen to do it, but it would have made the transition much easier.

Putting humility aside, I spend most of my education being one of the smartest couple of people in the room, including many of my teachers.  That's very much not the case in grad school.  I'm no slouch, but I'm clearly no standout either.  It's been hard coming to grip with the realization that I'm going to take longer than the median at my department to finish my dissertation.  Some of that is because of unfortunate funding situations, but much of it is because I am about average compared to my colleagues.

(Incidentally, I think my application to Colorado met exactly the fate described, best I can tell: I was judged to be good enough to attend, but not quite good enough to stand out from the rest.  As a result I was offered a spot, but no tuition assistance.  That's pretty much a nonvitation for STEM programs, as I understand it.  Don't go to a school that doesn't want you enough to cover your tuition.)

Drunk Driving

Reason: Hit & Run | Radley Balko | More on Abolishing Drunk Driving Laws

But I'm not arguing in favor of a freedom to drive while obliterated, or that there's some right to drive drunk that outweighs the safety of other motorists and pedestrians. I'm arguing that public safety laws need to be clear, enforceable, and should actually achieve their intended purpose. I'm not sure our current DWI laws meet any of those criteria.
Do read Balko's initial writing on this, and then this post.

I don't have a problem with outlawing drunk driving. I have a problem with how we've defined "drunk driving" in the first place.  Everything rests on that shaky premise.

Driving with a BAC of .801 is malum prohibitum, but we treat it as if it's malum in se. That bothers me.

I think people tend to make the same mistakes whenever measurement becomes possible.  We accept, for instance, that there is a continuous range of behaviors between driving a safe, straight course down the center of your lane at reasonable speed and weaving in and out of your lane at erratic speeds.  We know that drawing the dividing line on that continuum is a matter of judgement.

Similary there is a continuum from having no blood alcohol content and being so saturated with C2H6O that you're bordering on death. There is a sorites situation there: no single molecule of alcohol seperates "sober" from "drunk." But because we have a handy device for measuring this concentration, and a handy truth-from-the-imperial-city prononcement of where the according-to-Hoyle dividing line lies, we cease to treat this as a continuous situation. (Fallible) technology and (fallible) legislation has turned a continuous variable into a binary one.

In fact I object to the entire breathalyzer system of illegalization. From a scientific standpoint, they have terrible variance. . From a moral standpoint, they're a one-way-street. If you blow high, you're guilty. But if you blow under the cut off, you're not off the hook. Then it's just up to the officer. It's a test you can't actually pass.

I could go on with the other complaints I have — e.g. a law can either generate revenue or influence behavior to promote safety, but you get into trouble when you ask it to do both — but I'm just not going to.  The end.

"Acemoglu on Inequality and the Crash"

Will Wilkinson | Acemoglu on Inequality and the Crash

Ponder Daron Acemoglu’s slideshow wherein he offers an alternative to Raghuram Rajan’s story about the relationship between inequality and the crash. [...]

I believe this (Slide 14) to be true:
Inequality and Top Inequality
  • As we have seen, inequality has increased, but this has a fairly complex and nuanced structure.
    • Movements of college premium, postcollege premium, 90-50 and 50-10 inequality, and occupational structure generally well explained by supply, technology and trade.
  • What seems to have less of a nuanced structure is what’s gone on at the top of the income distribution.
  • It is entirely possible that wage inequality below the 99th percentile is being driven by supply, technology and trade, while the top percentile is being driven by something entirely different and this something entirely different is also very related to the causes of the fi…nancial crisis and to the peculiar political processes that have been underway in the United States over the last 25 years.
Inequality is not a scalar concept. It can not simply be labeled "high" or "low".

Acemoglu's point is that the shape of that curve in different regions of the space likely has different causes, and that suggests different diagnoses and treatments.

Something like a Gini coefficient is useful, but it is an abstraction from a two dimensional distribution curve that is itself already a huge abstraction. Ditto statements of the form "The top X% of people get Y% of FOO."  It is difficult to describe distributions of any quantity; natural languages encourage dimensionality reduction where it may not be wise.  Be wary of building abstractions upon abstractions.

28 January 2011

I have nothing useful to say about Egypt.

So I'll be pedantic instead

Reuters.com | Unrest in Egypt: "Smoke bellows over Cairo following clashes between protesters and police January 28, 2011"

Really?  The smoke is making loud noises like those of a bull?

Somehow I think it is billowing, not bellowing.

Thus ends my completely unnecessary internet punctiliousness for today.

Our Robot Overlords will wear neck ties.

27 January 2011

"Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work"

Division by Zero | Dave Richeson | Inspiration is for amateurs

I found this fantastic quote by the artist Chuck Close. It was his advice for young artists. However, I think that if you replace artist by researcher,* the same advice applies. I would certainly pass this advice along to young mathematicians: just start working, the ideas will come. Conversely, if you don’t put in the time, do not expect that “ah-ha” moment.
I've actually got that tacked up above my desk at the lab, along with some postcards of Close's portraits.

I think I saw the quote in Chuck Close: A Portrait in Progress, an hour long biographical film. He's got a fascinating life story, sort of an artist version of Lance Armstrong.

Richeson has an extended version of the quote from Andrew Zuckerman's Wisdom. I wish someone had drilled this into me more firmly before I started my dissertation research.

So here's my advice to grad students who feel at sea: just do something. Pick up a paper and read it. Doesn't matter if it doesn't seem relevant to the specific problem you're stymied by. Just pick it up and read it. It's better than sitting there not knowing how to proceed. Write down some ideas. Even bad ones. Even just a list of problems or questions. Put some thought into something.

I also like the footnote Richeson has:
*The similarity between artist and mathematician was famously pointed out by G. H. Hardy in A Mathematician’s Apology: “A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”
That's a great line.

PS I think Sarah Silverman, Chris Hardwick and others discuss this theme in the context of stand up comedy on this episode of The Nerdist.  I might be thinking of a different interview, but I think this is the one where they talk about how long it took them all to come to the conclusion that if they wanted to make their acts better they ought to actually sit down and think and write and work, and not just hope for inspiration to deliver new, funnier material.

(That episode was recorded at Gallery 1988, to bring us full circle back to contemporary art.)

This is the future of driving

Boing Boing | Cory Doctorow | Ford demos car-to-car networking for traffic-shaping: can you spoof it to beat traffic?

Ford's Washington Auto Show booth showed off a new range of specialized car-to-car WiFi networks intended to allow cars to automatically negotiate following distances and lane-changes, so that drivers can be alerted to potential traffic hazards. [...]
Ford's technology works over a dedicated short-range WiFi system on a secure channel allocated by the FCC. Ford says the system one-ups radar safety systems by allowing full 360-degree coverage even when there's no direct line of sight. Scenarios where this could benefit safety or traffic? Predicting collision courses with unseen vehicles, seeing sudden stops before they're visible, and spotting traffic pattern changes on a busy highway.
Mrs SB7 and I were watching some old Top Gear a couple of nights ago, and Richard Hammond was giddy about some new hydrogen fueled car. He said something like "this is the future of cars; this is the most important car of the next 100 years."

Bullshit. How a car gets fueled is a triviality. Information Technology is the real deal. People won't be amazed in 2100 that we used petroleum to power cars, they'll be amazed we actually had to drive them ourselves.

And -- AND! -- AI piloted cars will result in massive fuel savings.  Two birds.
Beyond the safety aspect, Ford says V2V technology, if applied on a national scale, could reduce wasted fuel spent in traffic delays. According to the Texas Transportation Intisute, about 3.9 billion gallons of fuel were wasted in traffic in 2009. That's a lot of gas--$808 worth for the average commuter.
There are savings even beyond fuel wasted in traffic. Negotiating following distances, informing cars behind you whether you're tapping the breaks or really slowing down, coordinating merges, drafting on highways: these are all situations where intelligent control and inter-vehicle communication would do that would save fuel.


Going to the Mat | Matt Johnston | Surf's Up
Speaking of education, is the Rhodes Scholarship losing its luster? Well maybe not the scholarship itself, but at least on scholarship committee members seems to think that the quality of candidate is going down and she blames the growing specialization of an undergraduate degree these days. I have, however, become increasingly concerned in recent years - not about the talent of the applicants but about the education American universities are providing. Even from America's great liberal arts colleges, transcripts reflect an undergraduate specialization that would have been unthinkably narrow just a generation ago.

As a result, high-achieving students seem less able to grapple with issues that require them to think across disciplines or reflect on difficult questions about what matters and why.
The writer is Heather Wilson, a former U.S. Representative from New Mexico, U.S. Air Force officer and Rhodes Scholar.
For all I know that's dead-on accurate, but it's a very curious statement. The point of the Rhodes scholarship is to send 32 Americans (and other nationalities, of course) to go study amongst the Brits, whose education is relentlessly narrowly focused. There is no such thing as an "undeclared" college student in Blighty. They hardly take electives.  Most (all?) student begin narrowing the focus of their education to four or five subjects in the middle of their teenage years.  It seems odd to think narrowness is an impediment for Americans wanting to go study in England.


Boing Boing | Mark Frauenfelder | Google won't autocomplete "bittorrent" but will autocomplete "how to kidnap a child"

Google won't autocomplete searches for "bittorrent," but if you are interesting in learning how to kidnap someone, make meth, build a bomb, cheat on your taxes, or shoplift, they will happily autocomplete your search for you.
This is a good example of why organizations like Google are better off saying "The algorithm is the algorithm; the data is the data; it's out of our control." By making a special case here they've put themselves in the position of being expected to be full time censors* for everything.

* In the Roman sense: an official guardian of the public morality.

26 January 2011

I'm going to go ahead and say this is bad driving weather.

Yikes.  Not a green road in the city.  495 is jammed up about 75% of the way around, and even "yellow" level traffic on the Beltway is not much fun.  270 is red and black all the way to Hagerstown, an hour drive on a clear day.

I'm safely at home, hoping Mrs SB7 and I don't join the 40,000 60,000 90,000 Pepco customers without power already.

(Why am I blogging a traffic report?  I don't really know.  Just go with it.)

Update 27 Jan '11: Let's just make that "several hundred thousand" without power. Electrons are once again flowing to my building, but 130,000 people in my county may have to wait until Sunday for service. One plow driver said rush hour traffic didn't clear until 1:00am.  Some people were stuck on the GW Parkway — which was reported as looking like a "bumper car grave yard" — for 14 hours.  This WaPo story has an anecdote about "traffic anarchy" about a mile from Casa de SB7.  We saw one bendy bus beached, front end levered out into East West Highway. Blocks away passengers were on a stuck bus for five hours. Tyler Cowen took eight hours to make his ten mile commute. He offers typically Cowenian commentary:
For the most part human cooperation held up and people kept their places in line. Bathroom norms evolved (and were improved), and I now know every station on my radio. As the trip continued, the number of car corpses rose.

We at GMU are so dedicated they didn't even cancel classes. And if a nuclear weapon is being launched at DC, I'm simply going down to the basement.

24 January 2011

It gives me no joy to say this, but I told you so.

Well, we told you so.
CNN | Russian authorities: Terrorist bombing at Moscow airport kills 35

Terrorists detonated a bomb at Moscow's busiest airport on Monday, killing 35 people and wounding 152, Russian authorities said. [...]

The explosion occurred about 4:30 p.m. at the entrance of the international arrivals section of Domodedovo Airport, Itar-Tass said, citing a spokeswoman for the Russian Investigative Committee, Tatyana Morozova. [...]

State TV, citing Russian authorities, said the bombing was the act of a suicide bomber who stuffed a homemade bomb with small metal objects to make it more deadly, then activated it in a crowded area where many people were waiting for arriving passengers. CNN could not independently verify those claims.
That's right. The entrance to the arrivals area. Where no amount of kabuki shoe doffing or mouthwash disposing or gonad grabbing would have prevented anything.
Will Geddes, terrorism expert and managing director of International Corporate Protection Group, called the bombing a "very significant terror strike."

"To strike in the airport -- which is fundamentally believed and understood by many to be one of the most secure types of installations in a city or in a country ...
Yes that is believed, but only erroneously. Even a half a thought would reveal that it is only the departure terminals of airports which authorities make an attempt to secure.


The very screening process itself creates new masses of people vulnerable to explosives.

For example:

More recently [than 2004], female suicide bombers struck the Moscow metro during rush hour in March, setting off two explosions that killed at least 38 people and wounded more than 60. Chechen rebels claimed responsibility for that attack.

In November 2009, an explosive device derailed an express train, killing at least 26 people.

My heart goes out to the loved ones of the victims. May authorities begin to learn some lessons in the wake of your losses.

Via Ilkka, who observes:
I just couldn't help but spot all the instances of security theater that were listed the CNN news article. For example, Lufthansa is now suspending all its flights to Domodedovo. I guess they imagine that there is something special only in this particular airport that makes such an attack possible, since they don't suspend their flights to anywhere else.

Sandwich News

This list of the "America’s Top 10 New Sandwiches" makes me all sorts of hungry.

The #1 new sandwich is served only a couple of miles from my home at Churchkey. I'm not a big fan of Luthers, but I might need to try this out anyway.

As a staunch sandwich partisan I've long contended that any food can be enjoyed and often even improved when made into sandwich form. (Where "sandwich" is defined as "bread containing a filling" so that, for instance, a calzone, a burrito and soup in a bread bowl are all part of the extended sandwich family.)

There are only two exceptions to this rule: breakfast cereal — which is hardly food to begin with since it's really just a beverage with grain chunks floating in it — and pasta.

But hold on! Paesano’s in Philadelphia is serving a "Lasagna Bolognese" sandwich!  The second exception appears to have fallen.

I will be taking this bad boy for a test drive next time we go to visit Mrs. SB7's family.  Excitingly the number nine new sandwich on this list also hails from Philly.  I'll be tracking down the food truck which originated the bulgogi steak sandwich on our next visit as well.

In less delicious sandwich news, the founder/owner of campus favorite Jimmy John's is moving out of Illinois to escape their new, harsher tax climate, and is mulling moving the company to Indiana for the same reasons.  Comments Radley Balko, "I can’t think of a more damnable critique of a state’s tax policy than anti-sandwich." Quite right, Mr. Balko. Quite right.

In a real head scratcher a Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity spokesman claimed the higher taxes actually make the state "more attractive" to businesses. Not sure how that works.

Statistical significance, science, and numerate journalism

NY Times | Benedict Carey | You Might Already Know This ...

The statistical approach that has dominated the social sciences for almost a century is called significance testing. The idea is straightforward. A finding from any well-designed study — say, a correlation between a personality trait and the risk of depression — is considered “significant” if its probability of occurring by chance is less than 5 percent.
There's a simple solution that Computer Science papers I read use.  Simply report the value of p. That's it.  You can call your finding "significant," but if right after that you have "(p = .499)" people aren't going to be very convinced. In contrast if you call your finding significant and have, as one paper I read yesterday did "(p >> .999999)" people will be pretty convinced, and likely rightfully so.
In at least one area of medicine — diagnostic screening tests — researchers already use known probabilities to evaluate new findings. For instance, a new lie-detection test may be 90 percent accurate, correctly flagging 9 out of 10 liars. But if it is given to a population of 100 people already known to include 10 liars, the test is a lot less impressive.

It correctly identifies 9 of the 10 liars and misses one; but it incorrectly identifies 9 of the other 90 as lying. Dividing the so-called true positives (9) by the total number of people the test flagged (18) gives an accuracy rate of 50 percent. The “false positives” and “false negatives” depend on the known rates in the population.
Hold the horses. Carey's getting at a valuable point, but this is completely wrong.

The experiment described has 100 trials consisting of 81 true negatives (correctly predicted honesty), 1 false negative (incorrectly predicted a liar was honest), 9 false positive (incorrectly predict dishonesty from an honest subject) and 9 true positives (correctly predicting dishonesty from a liar). That's an accuracy of (TP+TN)/(TP+TN+FN+FP) = 90%, not 50% given in the second paragraph.

The quantity Carey describes in the second paragraph as "true positives [divided] by the total number of people the test flagged" is TP/(TP+FP) = 50%, which is the precision of the test, not the accuracy.

The description in the first paragraph "correctly flagging 9 out of 10 liars" is actually corresponds to the recall (TP/(TP+FN) = 90%), not the accuracy of the test.

Other values of interest may be the specificity TN/(TN+FP) = 90%, sensitivity TP/(TP+FN) = 90%, false positive rate FP/(FP+TN) = 10%, false negative rate FN/(TP+FN) = 10%, and f1-score or f-measure 2TP/(2TP+FN+FP) = 64.3%. I could go on; there are plenty of other values derived from these such as the likelihood ratios.

(It is, of course, a coincidence that 10% and 90% keep popping up.  That's just an artifact of the numbers Carey chose.  (Except sensitivity and recall.  Those are two words for the same thing.))
In the same way, experts argue, statistical analysis must find ways to expose and counterbalance all the many factors that can lead to falsely positive results — among them human nature, in its ambitious hope to discover something, and the effects of industry money, which biases researchers to report positive findings for products.
Indeed they do.

And journalists much find ways of not reporting on studies with weak statistical findings, especially based on little more that press releases.  And especially releases which precede review and acceptance.

Journalists must also find ways of explaining the relevant numerical aspects to their readers rather than just printing up headlines like "Eating FOO reduces BAR, study finds."

Of course the numeracy of the reporter here does not fill me with confidence that they will take up that side of the burden.

Low debt vs high debt counties

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | America's broke recovery

In a new San Francisco Fed Economic Letter, Atif Mian and Amir Sufi investigate this hypothesis. They divide counties into deciles based on the pre-crisis increase in indebtedness and then analyse differences in behaviour in counties in the top and bottom deciles. Their results are striking. Residential investment never fell much in low-debt counties while it plummeted during the crisis in high-debt counties. Auto sales, as you can see at right, sprang back in low-debt counties but remain low in high-debt counties. Employment has followed a similar path.

The implication is that there is a direct connection between leveraged households and slow recovery. Indebted individuals aren't spending or investing, and so firms aren't investing or hiring, and so banks aren't lending.

To take this further, one could say that the problem is a shortage of demand, and it's therefore necessary for fiscal authorities to step in with a spending boost:
Or one could say that government programs which encourage consumer indebtedness are batshit insane. So end the mortgage interest deduction and bonkers programs like these:
Home prices have dropped, and mortgage rates are low. For anyone with the tens of thousands of dollars now required for a down payment, it's a pretty good time to buy a house. Now, it's even getting easier without that hefty down payment, as governments step in to help out.

A growing number of state and local governments are now offering what are called "down payment assistance programs," grants or low- and no-interest loans to first-time buyers or those who haven't owned a house in a few years. The number of programs, now somewhere around 1,000 nationally, has increased 3% to 5% in the last six months alone, estimates Marc Savitt, president of the National Association of Independent Housing Professionals, an advocacy group. [...]

Of course, not everyone is eligible for help. These programs are targeted at low- and middle-income buyers who have either never owned a home, or haven't owned one in a few years. And then the benefits are substantial: Typically, the programs offer up to $80,000 in loans with interest rates from 0% to 2% to people with little or no money to put down.
I'm a little tired of people diagnosing "low demand" as if they know what the proper level of all demand, aggregated, ought to be.  Maybe we do have "low" demand.  But maybe that low demand is good and proper until people dig themselves out and break unhealthy habits.

21 January 2011

TJIC, pt 2

Jeffrey Ellis, always worth listening to, weighs in:
Now, my kneejerk reaction here was one of outrage, and an assumption that Travis’s second amendment rights had been egregiously violated. (In fact, I wrote many paragraphs to that effect that I ended up deleting after I dug a little deeper and thought about it some more…)

But, digging a little deeper, it turns out that the police’s actions may have been legit, at least superficially. Here’s the relevant passage from Massachusetts gun laws (emphasis mine):
A license issued under this section shall be revoked or suspended by the licensing authority, or his designee, upon the occurrence of any event that would have disqualified the holder from being issued such license or from having such license renewed. A license may be revoked or suspended by the licensing authority if it appears that the holder is no longer a suitable person to possess such license. Any revocation or suspension of a license shall be in writing and shall state the reasons therefor. Upon revocation or suspension, the licensing authority shall take possession of such license and the person whose license is so revoked or suspended shall take all actions required under the provisions of section 129D. No appeal or post-judgment motion shall operate to stay such revocation or suspension. Notices of revocation and suspension shall be forwarded to the commissioner of the department of criminal justice information services and the commissioner of probation and shall be included in the criminal justice information system. A revoked or suspended license may be reinstated only upon the termination of all disqualifying conditions, if any.
[...] So the confiscation of Travis’s guns seems legal given the fact they have suspended his license. The question remains whether the suspension is justifiable under Massachusetts’ laws; I cannot find a concrete definition of what constitutes “suitable” in these laws. I see passages that indicate documented mental illness, criminal records, etc. are grounds for suspension or revocation, but I can’t find anything granting the police the power to decide on their own that someone’s expressed opinions renders them “unsuitable” for a gun license.
To me the absence of a definition of "suitable" makes this legislation nigh illegitimate. "Suitable" is one of those mealy words -- like "reasonable" and "appropriate" -- that legislators use to abdicate responsibility for putting their ideas in writing. Such legislation violates the very purpose of having codified laws because it pushes us right back into a Rule of Men state.
I think this is one of those stories where the most prudent thing to do is not jump to conclusions, but rather hold one’s initial opinion at arm’s length unless and until more information comes along. The questions I’d like to get answered are:

  • How, specifically, does Massachusetts law define “suitability” for a gun license? And does Travis indeed violate that definition of suitability?
  • What authority does Massachusetts law give police in determining that suitability?
  • Do the Massachusetts gun laws comply with the Constitution?
  • What does the law say, specifically, about the kind of speech Travis engages in, advocating violence against politicians?

And I would encourage others in the blogosphere not to be so quick to jump on the “I Am TJIC” bandwagon unless they have some pretty good answers to these questions. I know I don’t.
It is the very fact that those questions have to be asked that bothers me, specifically the first two. (The first should probably not be "How does..." but "Does Massachusetts law define 'suitability'"?)  The point of a code of laws is that the consequences of actions are predictable in advance.  The fact that we have to sit around scratching out heads wondering who is empowered to determine something as vague as "suitability" and how they might define it is ... how to put this politely? ... undesirable for a free and just society.

Readers will note I posted that "I am TJIC" image.  Maybe I'm just bandwagoning.  I don't know.  But I had in mind a very specific notion.  Corcoran blogged an utterly ugly comment about Tucson.  Then he reblogged thirteen of my (I think reasonable) ideas about Tucson.  The way I see it that puts me and him pretty close together by some metrics, even though I fully reject his initial post.

Like Ellis I disagree with Corcoran often enough.  But he and I are close enough together than it's more than a little discomforting seeing his property seized when the authorities don't like what he has to say.  This seize assets first, adjudicate later is all too common.  Maybe it's legal of them.  Maybe is reasonable.  But it's definitely distressing.

I will bet dollars to donuts that this has way more to do with TJIC being perpetually, caustically critical of local law enforcement than it does with anything he had to say about Giffors or congress.  That's deeply frightening to me.

~ ~ ~

Edited to add [22 Jan]: Ellis has another post about this that is also worth checking out.

Also, as he points out in the comments below, it may just be that he did not find the definition of suitable, not that it is missing entirely. This is entirely true, and I should have accounted for that. However it is just the sort of word I would not be surprised to find left undefined. Furthermore it reflects poorly on our republic that people must go searching vigorously through the code to figure out what the legality of certain actions are — or worse, what the legality of certain words are — and that even after they do so they can still be unsure about whether they have missed something like a definition of a crucial modifier.

Finally, Ellis concludes with this:
But, for this speech to be illegal, there must be (a) true intent to incite violence, and (b) a real likelihood that violence will in fact be incited. In the case of Travis’s opinions as expressed on his blog, I’m not sure either of these conditions have been met. Travis, if nothing else, is a man of GOALS, and he pursues his stated goals with incredibly tenacity. Readers of “Dispatches from TJICistan”, I need say no more, am I right? If Travis truly intended for congresscritters to die, the steps of the Capitol Building would be stained red and Travis would be posting about the best places to order more ammo from. Since this is not the case, I think Travis is engaging in hyperbole.
If all you know about TJIC comes from the one ugly blog post that made the news it makes sense to think he's a dangerous lunatic. But if you know anything else about him, if you read the follow up post in which he explained his unified theory of politics and the appropriateness of violence, assassination and revolution, if you read the post of mine he reblogged, if you read any of his year long series of posts about his goals and resolutions and progress towards them, if you had any other familiarity with the man, it would be very hard to reach those same conclusions.


I've been wondering for a couple of days why all I see at tjic.com is a 403 error.

This might have something to do with it:
Borepathc | I am TJIC

I've linked several times to posts over at the blog Dispatches from TJICistan. TJIC is an outspoken (some might say extremely so) advocate of smaller government. He's also a firearms owner in the People's Republic of Massachusetts. While he owns guns, it appears that he's no longer allowed to possess any:
Arlington (CBS) – A blog threatening members of Congress in the wake of the Tucson, Arizona shooting has prompted Arlington police to temporarily suspend the firearms license of an Arlington man.

It was the headline “1 down and 534 to go” that caught the attention. “One” refers to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in the rampage, while 534 refers to the other members of the U.S. House and Senate.

Police are investigating the “suitability” of 39-year-old Travis Corcoran to have a firearms license
Via Tam at Books, Bikes, Boomsticks, who correctly points out that TJIC's post was provocative, inflammatory and tacky but nonetheless protected political speech. TJIC's post, while vulgar, at most "amounted to nothing more than advocacy of illegal action at some indefinite future time," to lift a phrase from Hess v. Indiana, and therefore does not incite an imminent lawless action.

TJIC's initial post after the shooting was the epitome of tastelessness.But it's no different from what a million others have said without getting in any trouble. A lot of people have been referencing Death of a President in this regard. How many of our politicians called for Julian Assange's head on a platter? Obama himself has authorized the extrajudicial assassination of US citizens. I once heard Richard Stallman say he wanted to hold George Bush's head under water to drown him in a puddle. The audience laughed and clapped. That was during a talk about the GNU Project, for christsake!

I'll echo what Borepatch said: I am TJIC.

No, really. Corcoran later reblogged this post of mine about Tucson, saying something like "I agree in every particular." (I'd like to find his exact words, but there's that pesky 403 in my way.) So he posted one crude idea, then approved of thirteen ideas I wrote, all of which I think are reasonable. The first of those, by the way, was "I think this [attack] was entirely wrong." Are those words a dangerous assassin would link to approvingly?

20 January 2011

E[earned runs] = ERA. var[earned runs] = ?

Kids Prefer Cheese | Angus | mean-variance domination

Kevin Durant has repealed the laws of finance and CBS sports can prove it!

There's supposed to be a trade off between average return and variance where you get a higher return by bearing more risk. Yet, of all the leading scorers in the NBA (and he is THE leading scorer) Durant has the lowest variance of points per game.

Here's the picture (click the pic for a more glorious image):

I've been wondering for a while why variance is almost never reported as a sports statistic. Wouldn't it be helpful to know the standard deviation of a QB's rating?

It's not like sports analysts are numbers shy, or reluctant to invent to measurements.

"Ray Kurzweil, Kylie Minogue, Sugarland and more!"

That's the subject line of an email I got yesterday from The 9:30 Club, one of the larger (the largest?) music venues in town.

Here's what I said about Kurzweil previously:
If I had some tricky questions about [signals processing] I would totally listen to Kurzweil's opinions. But when it comes to "What is the future of AI, computing, and society?" I wouldn't stake anything on his answers being any better than any other mildly informed observer.

(Actually, I'd wager his answers will be qualitatively worse, for three reasons. One, he has a terrible track record when it comes to predictions. Two, his incentive is not to make correct predictions, it's to make notable, provocative predictions that people will want to pay him to talk about. Three, he already has a dedicated group of cult-like followers who are predisposed to believe his predictions, lessening the incentive to be accurate.)
When Ray Kurzweil makes the same rounds as pop stars is it any wonder that I doubt his incentives are aligned properly?

19 January 2011

Typing Conventions

Tom Lee has a nice piece on why he doesn't give a good damn that typographers only like one space between sentences.  Like him I prefer two spaces.

Part of that is just because that's how I learned it.

Part of it is the proportionality he mentions: a little space between words, some more space between sentences, more space yet between paragraphs.

Like him, I also spend a fair deal of time dealing with const width fonts when all the typographers arguments go out the window.

All of this "yes, yes, I concur with this one guy on the internet!" babble is just a prelude to this:
It’s disrespectful to let writing’s constituent elements bleed into one another through imprecise demarcations. If you see me “making mistakes with comma placement”, please rest assured that I’m doing it deliberately. In most cases the comma doesn’t belong to the phrase delimited by the quotation marks that enclose it. Placing an exclamation point or question mark to the left or right of a close-quote is a weighty decision! The we violate the atomic purity of quotations with injected commas is an outrage.
I do the same thing with quotes. (When I have the confidence to disregard the norm. You may have noticed it here.  This gives me courage to do it more in the future.  Should I receive complaints I will direct people back here.)

It makes no sense to me to interleave punctuation the way my English teachers would have me do it: the sentence starts, the quote starts, the sentence ends, then the quote ends. It's improper nesting!

I have always suspected thinking this way is highly correlated with coders. I wish I had data to back that up.

Hiring without college

The Economist: Free Exchange | R.A. | Education: The value of college

So, do colleges actually teach students anything? A new book tracking 2,300 students at four-year universities includes some striking findings:
  • 45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college.
  • Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements. Students improved on average only 0.18 standard deviations over the first two years of college and 0.47 over four years. What this means is that a student who entered college in the 50th percentile of students in his or her cohort would move up to the 68th percentile four years later -- but that's the 68th percentile of a new group of freshmen who haven't experienced any college learning.
"Learning" in this case is determined by performance on a test called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which gauges "critical thinking, analytic reasoning, and other 'higher level' skills". [...]
All very interesting. Here's where I start to differ with R.A. though:
But here's the thing. If there is a good way to assess ability through examination (and it seems like we're assuming that the Collegiate Learning Assessment is a good way to assess ability), and if firms are primarily interested in this measurable ability, then why wouldn't firms just ask to see these test scores as part of an application and not worry about whether an applicant had completed a university degree? At the very least, why wouldn't firms ask for test scores alongside some documentation attesting to completion of a degree? Indeed, why don't more firms requiring skilled workers hire people without college degrees? I understand that there are issues of asymmetric information such that college is a useful signal, but given the enormous direct expense and opportunity cost of a four-year college degree, the market failure seems to large here to be realistic. Some firms should be able to find an advantage in going to top quality secondary schools and hiring graduates at some salary lower than what they'd pay a new college graduate but representing a major improvement in net financial position relative to full-time student status.

Something is amiss. And I have to believe that firms value something imparted by a college education that's not captured by these assessments of learning.
Couldn't this just be the "no one ever got fired for buying IBM" effect? No one ever got fired for hiring seemingly qualified alumni of well respected schools.

Who wants to be the first major firm to start hiring this way? As importantly, which promising high school graduate wants to be the first to forego college because some unorthodox firm is hiring them? That's a non-trivial coordination problem between firms and high school graduates.

Don't overlook the consumption aspect of college either. In order for firms to higher HS grads based on test scores they would need to find a crop of people who (1) score well on the test, (2) do not think they could do better career-wise by going to college, (3) are willing to buck the trend, (4) have parents who are willing to let them buck the trend, (5) are interested in working for firms that buck the trend, and (6) are not interested in consuming "the college experience" with their peers.

Say those six things are independently distributed and one quarter of of the population has each of them. That leaves you with 244 people who fit the bill out of every million high school graduates. I would actually suspect .25 is too high a value for some of those variables, and many are negatively correlated.

PS I do agree with R.A. about this part: "At the very least, why wouldn't firms ask for test scores alongside some documentation attesting to completion of a degree?"  Firms are already casting about for extra information before hiring, with such things as checking applicants credit history.  I believe Walmart has a simple cognitive test they administer.  I would expect this to become more prominent.  Two reasons adoption might be retarded:

(1) What HR staff wants to admit they are not the best judge of talent?
(2) I suspect there are legal barriers I do not know about.  Who wants to be dragged into Ricci v DeStefano territory? What happens when a firm starts using a test to hire people and the average score of some "disadvantaged" demographic group on the test is lower than the average score of some "privileged" group?  I don't know what happens then, but I know that many lawyers will be making many luxury car payments in the aftermath.

Today's award for funny but sadly accurate...

... goes to this Onion item:

Onion Radio News | U.S. Middlemen Demand Protection From Being Cut Out

Is the ludicrous fictional rent seeking described here are different than the ludicrous nonfictional rent seeking of these Alabaman catfish farmers?

For a defense of middlemen (but not rent seeking), see this EconTalk episode with Mike Munger. It's one of the more memorable episodes.

18 January 2011

"pusillanimous gentry"

This is a further thought to tack to the end of my post about True Grit. (I've moved it to its own post so that my movie review did not descend into anti-statist ranting like all my other posts do.)

I was speaking of different rules regarding protecting or harming rulers.
Space for Commerce | Brian Dunbar | Letter to Tom Petri (R-WI)


I read on the news today that Representative Peter King (R-NY) announced he was going to submit a bill to outlaw firearms within 1,000 feet of elected members of congress.

May I humbly suggest you have a sit-down with your colleague and others of a like mind and tell them that if they insists on acting like a member of the aristocracy that the Republican Party is going to be one with the Whigs i.e. history.

We elect you folks to conduct the People's Business, not to interfere with ours.

I'll be damned if I'll support a party whose representatives are going to act like pusillanimous gentry.


Brian Dunbar
Neenah, Wisconsin

In addition to opposing different rules when it comes to our rulers, I vehemently object to unenforceable laws.  How would you possibly keep guns out of the area defined by a moving object when you can't keep them out of airports?

What actual misbehavior does this prevent?  What would this legislation accomplish besides providing pretext for punishing people who run afoul of the powers for other reasons?  It satisfies the action bias to Do Something! but past that what is it for?

I honestly can't understand the thinking here.  Shooting at a congressman is already extremely illegal.  What is the point in making it slightly more illegal?

I see these sorts of unenforceable laws as an end run around due process.  When the state can't prove the someone did anything wrong, or was planning to do anything wrong, it can fall back on having criminalized the capability of doing anything wrong.

I went to the movies and saw... True Grit.

Also a superb film.  I am a complete sucker for both the Brothers Coen and for Jeff Bridges.

Great cinematography by DP Roger Deakins. Simply fantastic work.

The Coens were the first to digitally color grade every frame of a feature film, with O Brother?. Sadly this has given way to the insidious cancer of Teal & Orange Disease. But it also gives us the beautiful, dusty, wild look of this film.  This is how it ought to be done.

Hailee Steinfeld held her own with Bridges and Matt Damon.  That's saying something for a fourteen year old rookie.  Kim Darby was 22 when she played the same role in the 1969 version.

Bridges' take on Rooster Cogburn would have seemed like a John Wayne imitation in the hands of a lesser actor.  As is, it was engrossing.

I complained along with many others that the "traveling through the wilderness" scenes in the latest Harry Potter movie were interminable. They could take notes from True Grit about how to get across the message of a long and boring journey in the wild without boring the viewer in the process.

I agree with what Matty Robinson and Steve Prokopy said last week: this a film which is so effortlessly good that you sort of forget how good it is. It doesn't have a lot of bravura, but it's solidly, unimpeachably good throughout.

The only complaint I had was the ending. I don't know how much to say without giving things away, but I felt it was lacking some of the emotional payoff it should have. You go through the whole movie waiting for our heros to track down the murdered, and they do. Then things play out very quickly.  There's a instantaneous shift to confronting a new challenge, and the whole matter of Tom Chaney is forgotten.  The new challenge is dispensed with in relatively short order, and then things wrap up. Special Lady Friend thinks this is a fitting commentary on how unsatisfying revenge is.  I think that's a valuable point, but I still wanted at least one shot to communicate the "mission accomplished" feeling I had been hoping for the whole time we were busy tracking Chaney.

PS  I learned in the wake of Jared Loughner's assassination attempt that it is a crime distinct from murder and attempted murder to kill/attempt to kill a federal employee.  On the one hand this makes sense, because killing a federal judge or a member of congress has a different impact on society than does killing a plumber.  On the other hand, a man's a man for a' that.  I get instinctually uneasy when there are different laws concerning our rulers, even when they make some sense.

This may seem triffling of me (not to mention unrelated), but consider how Mattie Ross wants to make sure that Tom Chaney is not hanged for killing a Texas state senator but for killing her father.  It is important to her (and to most people in the audience, I presume) that killing a man of relatively little consequence be treated with an equal gravity to killing a VIP.  I know we're always going to treat the killing of a grocery store clerk differently from the killing of a congressman.  But I'm uncomfortable with the embrace through codification of that reality.

"The Hardest Button To Button"

Watching that Zoetrope video make me think of this Michel Gondry directed video for The White Stripes' "The Hardest Button to Button". It's like a stop-motion animation made with video frames of live people.

Too many music videos are just short films with tenuous thematic connections to the song. (Scratch that. Too many music videos are utter rubbish. I'll take an interesting if unrelated four minute film masquerading as a music video any day.) I like that the visual here are actually linked up to the music in a clear way.

By the way, do kids still watch music videos?  Is that still a thing?  MTV was almost out of the music video game when I was finished high school.  I think they still had a couple of hours worth in the afternoon.  Do they even have that much these days?  Have music videos completely migrated to YouTube?  Do teens even bother watching them there, or are they mostly ignored?  I suppose the ability to air videos to TV audiences  has been negatively correlated with the ability to make videos easily over the last decade or so.  Perhaps these effects have balanced out?

I went to the movies and saw... The Fighter

Damn fine film. A very good sports movie and much more.

One thing I especially liked is that I really didn't know how it was going to end. You knew there had to be some sort of redemption, but I did not know at what point or how much, either personally or professionally.

There was one badly shot sequence, in the middle of a montage of several boxing matches.  To have only a couple of cliched shots in a sports movie is an achievement.

The only other shot that felt wrong was when we are introduced to Amy Adams' character.  I will not comment further for propriety's sake.

Superb performance by Christian Bale. Best drug addict on screen since Bubbles. Great work by Amy Adams and Melissa Leo. Wahlberg has gotten some flack for being so passive and flat and boring in a way, but I think it works for his character. He is, afterall, pretty weak outside of the ring.

Great soundtrack. It's a shame that Paul Simon's "The Boxer" couldn't have fit in there somewhere.*  It would not have matched sonically at all though I think thematically and lyrically it would.

I found Adams' character the most interesting. She is the one who consistently takes the difficult decisions. I would like to know what in her past led her to be able or willing to do that.  Though as Bale's character points out, she is still coasting adrift through life.  I want to know more about her.

This was originally going to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky. I would love to see what that would have been.

A more interesting (though also more fictional?) film would have had Wahlberg not reconcilling with Bale. Or at least not doing so until after Wahlberg has proven his independence and Bale had demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice for his younger brother. Recall that from Wahlberg's POV Bale only turns his back on his drug using associates and intercedes with Adams after Wahlberg has let him back in his corner.

Friends vs family is a very interesting theme to me.  I was rooting for Wahlberg to turn away from the toxicity of his family.  They did not treat him with love or friendship.  I place higher value on people who are not related to me but behave lovingly than I do on people who are nominally related to me but treat me with indifference.

This reminds me of a recent Radiolab podcast. They examined the research of UMD biologist Jerry Wilkinson regarding vampire bats, which he observed altruistically sharing food with bats who were unable to hunt.** He concluded that friendship was a better predictor of which bats would offer food to which than was kinship.  Something to chew on.

* Just for kicks and because it's one of my favorites, here's a live version of The Boxer:

** Is "hunt" the right word? Scavenge seems wrong. Can I use "parasite" as a verb?

Pixar's 3D Zoetrope


Via The Daily What

No "Money for Nothing"

(No, this isn't a TANSTAAFL post.)
The Washingon Times | Victor Morton | Dire Straits song banned in Canada for anti-gay slur

It was No. 1 in 1985, but it's unacceptable for Canadian eyes and ears today.

The Dire Straits song "Money for Nothing" was ruled by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council to be "extremely offensive" and thus inappropriate for airing on radio or television because it uses an anti-gay slur.

The decision against St. John's radio station CHOZ-FM in Newfoundland was released Wednesday. In it, the panel ruled that the word "faggot" "contravened the Human Rights Clauses" and its ethics code and is "no longer" permitted "even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days."
This is as silly as the widely publicized version of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Swayer which NewSouth Books is publishing without the word "nigger." "Faggot" is as integral to "Money for Nothing" as an artistic work. I would actually argue it is more integral than Twain's wording is to Finn and Sawyer.  The entire point of "Money for Nothing" is to express the view blue collar workers had of the glammy rockstars of the 80s as effeminate.   Warren Meyer elaborates:
This is stupid on its face, and even stupider if the song in question is understood. If you have never heard the song before, it may seem an odd juxtaposition at first — why does it alternate between jabs at rock stars on MTV and talk about moving appliances? Because the song is exactly what it sounds like — Mark Knopfler overheard some workers in an appliance store watching MTV and heckling the performers they saw for being rich and spoiled and overpaid and not working very hard.

The song is interesting not just because it has a great opening that is fun to play at maximum volume, but because Knopfler is one of those guys on MTV the workers are heckling. Does he secretly agree with them, is he hurt by them, does he find them funny? Anyway, the word “faggot” in the piece is essentially aimed at the performers themselves — they are describing a critique they have received, repeated in all its salty blue-collar flavor. As such the words feel utterly authentic, perhaps because they are — Knopfler reportedly grabbed a piece of scratch paper right at the store and started jotting down notes.


I could have easily titled this post “the Left and Right converge,” because in it I see the Left acting exactly like the religious Right I grew up around in the South that would try to ban any number of books and songs, often out of an incredibly poor understanding of what the story or song was really about.
If only the Right did that in the past tense. For a contemporary example, check out various attempts to ban Harry Potter (e.g.) If you're going to ban things — and please, don't — do it because of objectionable semantics, not objectionable syntax.

Another point of contrast with the scrubbed up Twain volume: with Finn and Sawyer it is a private publisher deciding to release another version of these works, giving consumers a choice as to which they prefer. With Dire Straits, Canada is banning the offending version from being broadcast by private stations only. The state-run CBC can still broadcast the original.  In the former case the scouring of offensiveness results in an increase of choice, in the latter case, a decrease.

13 January 2011

"Balloon Dog" and balloon dogs

Boing Boing | Cory Doctorow | Jeff Koons claims to own all balloon dogs

Lawyers representing Jeff Koons, the pop artist known for remixing common objects and other peoples' art, have demanded that San Francisco's Park Life stop selling book-ends that look like balloon dogs.
On the one hand I saw those pictures before reading the post, and my first thought was "Jeff Koons book ends!" Whoever made these is very clearly trading on his creation in making these miniature reproductions.

Ultimately though I think I'm going to (and this is hard for me) agree with Doctorow.
I always say that every pirate wishes he was an admiral, but it's not often that you get as clear an example as this: having built a career on the flexibilities in copyright law that allow artists to make transformative use of the works around them, Koons now wishes to terminate those flexibilities and award himself exclusive rights over all the works he's made, and the works that inspired them.
Maybe visual art needs something similar to the "non-obvious" rule we have for patents. Artwork based on something commonplace gets less legal protection.  If you do something as high concept as a four foot stainless steel balloon animal you don't get to stake out the entire territory as firmly as you would had you done something with a more concrete conceit.

See also Shepard Fairey making a career out of cribbing others' images, and then siccing his lawyers upon those that crib his. (Paradoxically Fairey seems to be a great hero among Boing Boingers. Ideology trumps all, I suppose.)


EconLog | Arnold Kling | Colander on Complexity

Since I brought up the topic, a commenter pointed me to the Wikipedia article on complexity in economics, and that in turn referred to David Colander [pdf].
[complexity theory] is highly mathematical, and, as I stated above, accepts the need for simplification. But it argues that the mathematics needed to simplify economics often involves non-linear dynamic models that have no deterministic solution.

It strikes me that there is a deep question of what constitutes knowledge in economics. I do not know the answer, but my instinct is that the contribution of computer simulations of complex processes will not amount to much.
I think I have to disagree with Kling here.

Computer simulations -- the new "third way" of Science* -- have been helpful in understanding other complex processes. Why not economics?

That's a serious question: what is different about economics that would make simulations less valuable? Perhaps our economic knowledge is insufficient to properly verify and validate. That's the primary concern that comes to mind, and it's far from trivial.

I will concede that most computer simulations are not terribly helpful. And I say that as someone who has spent much time doing sims of complex systems. Most of them just aren't very good for various reasons. (Often poor V&V, or question-begging assumptions imbedded in the sim.) But most numeric analysis aren't very useful either; nor is most theoretical work.  I don't see simulation work as being terribly different in this regard.

NB As usual "complex" should be taken in the technical sense, not as a synonym for "complicated."  I wish I didn't have to specify that (do I?) but such is the English language.

* Simulations are often called a third way because they contrast with the two traditional modes of scientific inquiry, theoretic work built up symbolically on the blackboard, and numeric work based on experimental or field observations. Sims combine some of each of these traditional modes, unchanged since Newton or so, in a way that was impossible even half a century ago. Computer sims are still a very fledgling field, so I think it imprudent to judge their potential for creating insight based on the work done with them so far.

11 January 2011

Chicken Little was always wrong, but everyone in the village knew his name.

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Forecasting for a Swing

Joe Keohane writes about Nouriel Roubini,
For a prophet, he's wrong an awful lot of the time. In October 2008, he predicted that hundreds of hedge funds were on the verge of failure and that the government would have to close the markets for a week or two in the coming days to cope with the shock. That didn't happen. In January 2009, he predicted that oil prices would stay below $40 for all of 2009, arguing that car companies should rev up production of gas-guzzling SUVs. By the end of the year, oil was a hair under $80, Hummer was on its way out, and automakers were tripping over themselves to develop electric cars. In March 2009, he predicted the S&P 500 would fall below 600 that year. It closed at over 1,115, up 23.5 percent year over year, the biggest single year gain since 2003.
Thanks to Phil Izzo for the pointer. The article is based on a paper by Jerker Denrell and Christina Fang.

It would appear that Roubini's strategy is to make forecasts that differentiate himself from the consensus forecast. This allows him to be spectacularly right sometimes and spectacularly wrong sometimes. As long as he succeeds in getting everyone to remember the right forecasts more clearly than the wrong ones, he becomes a prophet.
I said a while back that I put less faith in the predictions of Ray Kurzweil than an average informed person.  My three reasons:
One, he has a terrible track record when it comes to predictions. Two, his incentive is not to make correct predictions, it's to make notable, provocative predictions that people will want to pay him to talk about. Three, he already has a dedicated group of cult-like followers who are predisposed to believe his predictions, lessening the incentive to be accurate.
I think I could say the same three things about Roubini.

I'll expand it in general to anyone whose incentive is to be noticed rather than to be right.

Soul Undaunted

Reason: Hit & Run | Nick Gillespie | Parents of Slain 9 Year Old Speak

This is a Today show interview with Roxanna and John Green, the parents of 9 year old Christina Green, who was born on September 11, 2001 and was killed in the Tucson shooting on Saturday. Roxanna talks about how their daughter dealt with being born on such a horrible day by looking forward to a better future. And, as Hot Air's Ed Morrissey notes, John Green personifies 'heartbreaking grace and tremendous courage in the face of unspeakable tragedy.'

'We're going to remember her for the nine years we had her,' says Green, who continues:
This shouldn't happen in this country, or anywhere else, but in a free society, we're going to be subject to people like this. I prefer this to the alternative."
I pray I could respond as gracefully and wisely after a tragedy like this. I doubt I could.

~ ~ ~

For the other end of the spectrum in response reasonableness: blathering from Krugman and also from The New Yorker.

Phone Ads

Why do phone ads always report the price of the device but not of service plan?

Check that.  I know why.  What I mean is there must be many other people besides me who recognize that the one-time fee for the device is almost insignificant next to the cost of the service plan.  I am continuously bugged about having to go look for the cost of service plans when the device cost is right there in bold.

A standard contract is two years, right?  And the plan, especially for internet-enabled phones, is within a binary order of magnitude of the price of the device each month, AFAIK.  So Verizon is telling me one thirteenth of the total cost of getting an iPhone.

Surely this must bother someone besides me.

(Image via The Daily What)

10 January 2011

Tucson Assassination

Some thoughts:

(1) I'm about as sympathetic as any non-crazy person to the idea of executing politicians, and even I think this was entirely wrong. I can not emphasize that enough.

(2) If one does decide to murder an agent of the state it is imperative that innocent bystanders be spared. Killing innocent people in the process makes the assassin/terrorist/revolutionary/"freedom fighter"/whatever as bad as the people he is trying to eliminate.

(3) A lot of people have been saying that it is never, ever acceptable to kill a politician. I wonder if they would actually stick to that rule, or if, like most others, they would become consequentialists when the consequences are high enough. Would you have killed members of the Politburo in order to prevent the Ukrainian famines of the 1920's? Is there no one in North Korea or Iran that you might imagine assassinating?

If assassination is never justified, is revolution? If not — for my American readers — what do you do on July 4th every year? Not celebrate, I presume. Why would revolution be okay but a much smaller-scale act be verboten? Or is revolution like religious experience — it's holy when it takes place far enough in the past, but if you claim to be talking to god/overthrowing governments now you're a nut?

(4) Jared Lee Loughner is pretty clearly mentally ill. I would not be so quick to put the blame on politics for his actions. The insane do not act the way they do because of some campaign posters.

(The campaign poster thing really tickles me, since target imagery has been used on congressional district maps for years by the left and right.)

(5) Responsibility does not float around in the ether. Do not blame this on "the political climate" or "the discourse" or "the rhetoric of _______." People have responsibility for their own actions. Even crazy ones.

(6) What is with assassins/terrorists and having three names? If that was not already a trend would the media be reporting Loughner's name as Jared Loughner?

(7) Thanks a lot asshole. You have now made it even more difficult to take a stand against statism without being branded as a nutjob.

(Yes, I know this effects pales to insignificance in relation to the lives lost. I am aware of that. And yet it is still a consequence we will have to live with.)

(8) I wish as many people cared when agents of the state take a citizen's life as they do when a crazy citizen attempts to take an agent of the state's. Reactions to stories like innocent O'Ryan Johnson being killed in a SWAT raid tend towrads "Oh well, mistakes happen." That is sad.

(On a lesser scale reactions to stories like this, in which a DC Metro cop beat on a woman who was mouthing off to him, tend towards "she was asking for it.")

It is as morally indefensible for the Framingham SWAT team to have killed Johnson while attempting to arrest a drug dealer as it is for Loughner to have killed a nine year old girl while gunning for a congressman. Loughner will spend his life in prison; whoever killed Johnson will probably get paid leave.

(9) As usualy, politicians and pundits' reactions to this story sicken me. They range from the general "this tragedy proves all my enemies are evil and we must do everything I already advocated doing" to the inexplicably specific, like Rep James Clyburn's (D-S.C.) assertion that this means congressmen shouldn't have to wait in line at TSA checkpoints. (Seriously, WTF?) Just once can we all please let a tragedy go to waste?

(10) Even people like me who don't tend to like congressmen want them to be holding community meetings outside grocery stores. It's too bad public meetings have just been dis-incentivized.

(11) Further evidence that terrorists doesn't need bombs. The two mail bombs sent to Maryland offices last week and did essentially no damage, other than loss of production from the disruptions. One guy with a gun has done a tragic amount of damage.

(12) Maybe this is cognitive bias, but it seems like more people have tried to assassinate the POTUS than all other federal politicians combined. (At least in recent decades.) This despite the POTUS being probably the most protected man in the Western World. Perhaps this is too logical for the sorts of wackos that assassinate people, but it seems like one would want to attack the lower hanging fruit.

I'm not saying this to be callous. I think it may tell us something about weaknesses in our security. We allocate security out of proportion to the damage that would result from a successful assassination to various figures. How well protected is the Chief Justice or the Speaker of the House in relation to the President? Is that ratio lower than the ratio of damage losing a president to losing a Speaker? I suspect yes.

(13) Four short years ago it was mostly people on the Right who were complaining about "poisonous rhetoric" and "violent discourse" and such. The more things change...

Alex Massie put it well:
But the sordid temptations of politics are such that people who argue there's little sensible connection between Hollywood "violence" and real-world violence now suddenly insist that it just takes a silly poster and plenty of over-heated rhetoric to inspire America's Top Kooks to come out of the closet, all guns blazing. And of course the reverse is also true: people happy to blame Grand Theft Auto for just about anything now insist there's no connection at all between the tone of political discourse ("Second Amendment Solutions!") and some nut taking these notions just a little bit too seriously.