28 September 2012

The Politics of a "Modern Family" Review -or- Smart People Believe X, Obama is Smart, Therefore Obama Believes X

Esquire: Culture Blog | Anna Peele | Why Modern Family Is So Conventional

The show is like a Zack Morris cell phone disguised as an iPhone in the form of its gay couple, Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cam (Eric Stonestreet), and the fact that teen sex is acknowledged. It could not be more conventional — there was an episode about a lost puppy! Even Leave It to Beaver would find that crap lame — yet Emmy voters nominated the entire cast and awarded Julie Bowen and Jesse Tyler Ferguson and named the show the best comedy on television.

It's an excuse for Mitt Romney, by virtue of declaring it his favorite show, to let the world know he is just barely tolerant of homosexuals. Barack Obama also pretends it's his favorite, but at least he sees it for what it is: a hyper-traditional sitcom about nuclear families that will connect him to the thirteen million middle Americans who watched the premiere last night.
This is exactly what I'm talking about when I say people project whatever they want to believe about Obama onto him. How does Peele possibly know that "Obama sees is for what it is"? Did this come up in some White House press briefing?*
If it did, then, ummm... ignore the rest of this post.
Was there some interview I missed where he said Modern Family is his favorite show, but wink-wink-nudge-nudge he actually realizes it's "hyper-traditional" (thus uncool) and is only pretending to like it? Am I missing something, or is that just pure assumption pretending to be fact?

Maybe I've been missing some crucial utterances from the Oval Office, but why would Peele conclude Obama only pretends to like Modern Family? How does she leap from "I think Modern Family is conventional masquerading as edgy" to "Obama knows Modern Family is conventional masquerading as edgy"? There's simply no evidence to build that chain of inference. The only way to get from there to here is:
  1. Obama is a habitually blank slate who's gotten tons of mileage from being all things to all people, and
  2. Peele and people like her have become accustomed to projecting their own beliefs onto his vacuous facade.
  3. Therefore, Obama must believe what Peele knows to be true.
This doesn't really matter when it comes to TV, but people do this with everything. "I think marijuana is swell, and I'm sure Obama does too." Ummm, nope. "I support peace and want to bring our troops home, and I'm sure Obama does too." Nope. "I oppose warrant-less wiretapping of Americans, and so does Obama." Not exactly. "I support more open immigration, and Obama does too." Not so much, actually. "I'm against torture, indefinite detention, and assassination, and I'm sure Obama is too." Sadly, no. But hey, who cares about actual actions when you have Hope?


Also, why the hell do periodicals like Esquire feel compelled to drag politics into things like their TV reviews? I stopped reading both Rolling Stone and Wired because they couldn't separate politics from the rest of their content. I have no desire to read what Esquire's staff thinks about elections, because (a) they aren't particularly sharp when it comes to politics, (b) they're largely innumerate and so anything they say remotely touching on economics is useless, and (c) they're openly disdainful of my views. Stick to your knitting, Esq., or you'll loose at least one more subscriber.


PS. I just reread the second 'graph I quoted above, and I'm now even more confused. Peele is criticizing Romney for cynically claiming to like Modern Family, but then in the very next sentence praises Obama for only liking Modern Family cynically. This is why Obama will win. It does not matter what he does or says. He can say and do exactly the same things Romney does (which he will do, depressingly often) but his supporters will love him for it because he is Cool and Romney is not. Obama was elected in 2008 because he was Cool. That has not changed since then, so he will be re-elected in 2012.

27 September 2012

On "Moon Shots"

UT MD Anderson Cancer Center Launches Unprecedented Moon Shots Program

Houston — The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center announces the launch of the Moon Shots Program, an unprecedented effort to dramatically accelerate the pace of converting scientific discoveries into clinical advances that reduce cancer deaths.
A "moon shot"? Seriously? We already tried that. Literally.

The National Cancer Institute was specifically established to be a "moon shot" against cancer. The Laskerites explicitly used that language when they were lobbying for it.

And where did it get us? To the moon? You tell me: when it comes to oncology, are we in lunar orbit? Or are we still limping along in the equivalent of a DC-10 with our fingers crossed, hoping that the number of landings equals the number of take-offs?

This isn't a criticism of oncological researchers or clinicians. Curing cancer is hard. Harder than getting to the moon. That's part of why "But if we can put a man on the Moon then we can [blah blah blah]" is so specious. You know what you need to put a man on the moon? Thrust. Lots of it, but that's it. That's all. We knew the Science behind it for generations. We just needed to figure out the Engineering. That's hard, but that's completely different from figuring out how to cure cancer.

You know how Kennedy said "We choose to go to the Moon..."? It was a choice. It was one that cost us a noticeable piece of GDP, a more noticeable chunk of the Federal budget, and a vast chunk of our physical science and engineering effort for a decade, but it was a great human achievement and it embarrassed Ivan, so yay! But it was still literally a choice. We could try to go to the Moon, or we could go do some other stuff, but they were both options.

Meanwhile, we've been waging our "War on Cancer" since 1971. It's not like we can just decide "hey, you know what, let's choose to cure cancer now." That's what we've been doing. It hasn't been going that great. (Compared to the Apollo Program, I think I can safely say it's been a failure.) And the advances that have been made have mostly come from outside the NCI & "War on Cancer" establishment anyway.

By all means, let's keep trying. Let's try even harder! That's great! But let's not pretend this is in any way like going to the Moon, other than that both endeavors involve plenty of Science and even more money.

I wish MD Anderson well. Really, I do. I have a very personal stake in someone figuring out some good cancer treatments soonish. But can we please cool it with the Apollo Program rhetoric? Especially if we've already tried a "moon shot" in that area and it failed outright? Please?

PS Read Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It was awesome.

The Middle Class

Carpe Diem | Mark Perry | Shifting Demographics Explain the "Hollowing Out"

[...] What Pew calls “economic polarization” might alternatively be described simply as changes in demographics over time. Compared to 1970, we now have more immigrants, more older Americans, and more young Americans in college as a share of the population, and that could help explain the “hollowing out” of the middle class and the increase in Americans with low incomes. Pew’s rather gloomy conclusion is that the middle class is shrinking and “falling backward in income and wealth.” But perhaps it’s more the case that shifting demographics and longer life expectancy over the last forty years can explain what is likely just a natural increase in the percentage of Americans classified as “low-income.”
To the extent the current distribution of people into arbitrary income "classes" matters at all, I'm with Perry.

You know, I was all fired up to write stuff about this but... whatever, man. I'm going to recycle some stuff:
SB7 | Robots won't kill the middle class -or- A sailor aint a sailor anymore: so what?

PS Just once when someone makes a claim about how "the middle class is disappearing" I would like them to define their terms. What do you mean by "the middle class"? Apparently people use it in Britain to mean anyone with savings who isn't part of the gentry. Many people use it to mean anyone in the middle three income quintiles. By that definition it is impossible for the middle class to disappear, since somebody must always occupy positions 20-80 out of 100. This fellow seems to use it to mean "people who hold jobs which traditionally resulted in mid-level-incomes, provided they require some skills and little physical effort." When you define it by tradition then the middle class is guaranteed to shrink. That's just how dynamic systems work. Furthermore people tend to conflate "middle class" patterns of production and "middle class" patterns of consumption. Don't forget to take that into account.
See also "The Not Too Rich."

"less" != "more, but only a little more"

Washington Post | Sarah Kliff | Health insurance costs grew slowly for two years. Now, they’re speeding up.

Spending for private health insurance surged by 4.6 percent in 2011, according to a report from the Health Care Cost Institute. That growth rate is faster than the rest of the economy and higher than the previous year, which had 3.8 percent growth.

Average spending on a private insurance patient rose to $4,547 in 2011, compared with $4,349 in 2010. That statistic suggests that a recent downturn in health-care spending may have been a temporary product of the recession rather than a more permanent change, as some health-care economists have hoped.
Oh fer chrissake.

Can't you tell the difference between a quantity and it's first and it's second derivatives? There was no "downturn." At least not according to the Post's own data. There was slower growth than it had been previously. No downturn. Nothing got cheaper, it just got less expensive than it was anticipated to.

24 September 2012

In which I endorse one idea and its dipole

Rhymes With Cars & Girls | Sonic Charmer | Half-baked ideas I could never back up for posts I’m never going to write

• It should be illegal for schools to assign ‘homework’. To study and work is why we send them to school for N hours per day; ‘homework’ is an admission of failure in their basic mission.
This is a very tempting idea. I'm partial to it.

But allow me to throw out my own half-baked idea I will never be able to back up: All learning is self-learning. Unless you think through a problem on your own you have not really learned anything. Therefore schooling should consist of nothing but "homework".


I have to edit this to add the following Not Always Right story that was posted today:
(I am a year 5 class teacher. I’m dismissing my class of nine and ten year olds at the end of the day when a mother approaches me.)

Mother: “My son’s not been doing his homework!”
Me: “I know. He hasn’t handed his homework in for several weeks now.”
Mother: “Well, I’m not very happy about this!”
Me: “No, nor am I.”
Mother: “So, what are you going to do about it?”
Me: “I can’t make him do his homework. His homework is to be completed at home.”
Mother: “Why?”

17 September 2012

People are terrible at judging innovation while it's in progress

NBER | Robert J. Gordon | Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds

A useful organizing principle to understand the pace of growth since 1750 is the sequence of three industrial revolutions. The first (IR #1) with its main inventions between 1750 and 1830 created steam engines, cotton spinning, and railroads. The second (IR #2) was the most important, with its three central inventions of electricity, the internal combustion engine, and running water with indoor plumbing, in the relatively short interval of 1870 to 1900. Both the first two revolutions required about 100 years for their full effects to percolate through the economy. During the two decades 1950-70 the benefits of the IR #2 were still transforming the economy, including air conditioning, home appliances, and the interstate highway system. After 1970 productivity growth slowed markedly, most plausibly because the main ideas of IR #2 had by and large been implemented by then...

The computer and Internet revolution (IR #3) began around 1960 and reached its climax in the dot.com era of the late 1990s, but its main impact on productivity has withered away in the past eight years. Many of the inventions that replaced tedious and repetitive clerical labor by computers happened a long time ago, in the 1970s and 1980s. Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it...
Sorry, how to do reconcile these things? IR2 took a century to mature. Why would you assume all the gains from computation have already been achieved? Why am I supposed to believe that the DotCom boom was a global and not a local maxima?

And yes, technological gains in the last couple of decades appear to be consumer-focused. First of all, get back to me in 50 years and tell me all the work in 3d printing that's occurring currently isn't going to have a profound effect on production. Secondly, so what? The point of the economy isn't to give people jobs to do, it's to fulfill our desire to consume. You can say Twitter or Netflix is trivial because they've only put a couple thousand people to work, but hundreds of millions of people derive tons of genuine hedonic value from them. What more do you want?

Via Noahpinion, who has very good extended commentary. I will highlight this:
But even on a more modest level, there are technological improvements already in the works that will help sustain growth. The fall in solar costs is one of these. Improvements in robotics/automation/A.I. are a second. Genetic technologies are a third, and biomechanical engineering (artificial eyes and the like) is a fourth. These things are real.
All three of these are very underrated.

16 September 2012


Arnold Kling has some clever ideas about reforming PEPCO.

Ultimately I think Kling's idea of tiered service — paying more for guaranteed uptime — will be too unpopular to be workable. When push comes to shove in the après-storm, the people who freely opted not to pay extra for quicker restoration will be able to bring too much populist pressure to bear against the people did make such payments. It doesn't matter how carefully you structure the arrangements. The popular perception in DC will still be "OMG the rich white people are getting their power turned on first! PEPCO is racist!!!"

Nevertheless, this is orders of magnitude more sophisticated thinking than the thousands of people in DC who are simultaneously demanding that PEPCO rebuild their infrastructure with buried power lines and complaining about high prices.

15 September 2012


Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | What are the social costs of high-frequency trading?

I’ve yet to see a good argument that they are high.
Indeed. I also don't see what the social costs are supposed to be. Often people say they are concerned about the social costs but give examples of private costs.

So Firm X invests their capital in shaving a few microseconds off executing an order. That produces {a sizeable benefit to them; a very, very, very, very small benefit to me} at the cost of {a large cost to them; no cost at all to me}. It's not like I'm being taxed to pay for new HFT R&D.

"Oh no! Firm Y lost a bajillion dollars because their algorithmic HFT systems screwed up! We must limit HFT!" Okay, sure. But didn't Firm X's counterparties make a nice chunk off those deals? Where's the loss? Why must we protect X from their own errors?

14 September 2012

Things I've been meaning to post for three weeks...

The Economist: Graphic Detail | K.N.C. | Charting the wind: Blown away
Pretty. Prettier yet when it's in motion.
Meanwhile, Ms Viégas distinguishes herself in particular by her ability to take information that people may have never thought of as data, and finding clever ways to render it into visual form.
Wait. There are people who don't think everything is data?

John Cartan | Starmaze

This is an impressive, multidecade piece of work. Aesthetic, computational, mathematical. I love it. (The above is only part of a diagram.) I can't begin to summarize, but Cartan picked up a parlor puzzle, analyzed it with non-Euclidean geometry, turned that into a maze, then mashed it up with both 2D & 3D graphic design and hand-drawn and digital graphics over a period of years.

To top it all off, he's put together a very nice set of webpages explaining his process and results. That explanatory writing is something I struggle to motivate myself to do, which results in me only posting about 20% of the projects I work on to the web.

(Like the last item, this reminded me that visualizing state spaces as high-d hypercubes isn't normal.)

The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | Is China a Hayekian Success Story?
But Wang and Coase focus elsewhere, on what they called the “marginal revolutions.” These were the changes that occurred at the margins of society, in the backward areas where the Chinese leadership was not focused [in the late 70s]. The leadership had a sort of laissez-faire attitude toward these marginal areas, letting those groups experiment as long as they didn’t adopt capitalist practices. [...]

In these four areas the Chinese government was willing to tolerate some experimentation, but no capitalism. But capitalism is what they got. These marginal groups continually overstepped the boundaries of what the Chinese government was willing to allow. Sometimes they went to jail. Sometimes the Chinese government later allowed the experiment to continue. This gave the central government a sort of “deniability” if things went wrong. They could say the innovations had been illegal, and shut them down.

People often praise the Chinese government for their “wise reforms.” Sorry, but these reforms were not implemented by the Chinese government, they were implemented by the Chinese people, at great personal risk. The government grudgingly OKed them much later.
I doesn't seem to me like much has changed. The big reason I am bearish on China is that all of their most vibrant enterprises operate in the grey market. It's too easy for the wrong guy to decide to respond to some new crisis by stomping out all that gray activity.

(The other reason is statistics. I don't trust our own bureaucracy to accurately gauge the health of the American economy. I trust the Greeks and Agentinians even less. And I still trust them to report accurate figures more than their Chinese counterparts.)

The Atlantic | Alexis Madrigal | On Obama's Reddit Appearance

I think this is spot on: this was standard politician pablum, just delivered via teh interwebz rather than in a VFW hall or middle school gym. Then again, I can not even conceive of a world in which Madrigal's analysis would not be correct, so maybe I'm not the best person to ask.

F*** Yeah, Internet Fridge

Yes. I have been promised this forever, but no one ever explained why I am supposed to want one.

In related matters: remember how people spent decades advertising home computers as a way for housewives to organize recipes? (I'm not the only one who remembers this, right? That was supposed to be a thing, I swear.) I still don't have a good digital recipe organization system. I've tried Evernote and a bunch of other stuff. None were satisfying. Any tips?

[Edited: for the record, I'm talking about software solutions here. I definitely don't want some dedicated kitchen device. I've tried Evernote, Springpad, and several other services, and none fit the bill.]

Rhymes with Cars and Girls | Sonic Charmer | ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policies Exist To Protect Bureaucrats, And Ridicule Is The Best Weapon Against Them

Zero tolerance ---> zero discretion ---> zero responsibility for "decision makers."

The Last Psychiatrist | Paul Ryan vs. Rage Against The Machine
I'm sure Rage is earnest in their core belief system, I do not dispute this, I do not claim they are sell outs at all, but you can't argue that you're part of the counterculture if you've been #8 on TRL in between Destiny's Child and Lou Vega's Mambo No. 5. You aren't the counterculture, you are the culture. [...]

Instead of condemning Paul Ryan for not being cool enough to get it, Tom Morello might want to ask how it is possible that "the embodiment of the machine we are raging against" ended up liking him. What was the precise mechanism that caused that to happen?

TED | Hans Rosling | The Magic Washing Machine

"Thank you, industrialization! Thank you, steel mill! Thank you, power station! Thank you, chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books!"
Hear, hear! I want to project this onto a blimp flying over the next WTO protest.

Political Calcualtions | Ironman | Beer as an Economic Indicator
What we've done here is charted the price of beer in Greece (blue), Italy (orange), Spain (red), Ireland (green), and Germany (black). Now this is an index chart; essentially the beer component of the CPI. We've set the index to start at 100 in 1996.
European Crisis explained in beer prices. It's the tastiest indicator.

E. Burger & M. Starburg | The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking
Calculus may hold a world’s record for how far an idea can be pushed. Leibniz published the first article on calculus in 1684, an essay that was a mere 6 pages long. Newton and Leibniz would surely be astounded to learn that today’s introductory calculus textbook contains over 1,300 pages. A calculus textbook introduces two fundamental ideas, and the remaining 1,294 pages consists of examples, variations, and applications — all arising from following the consequences of just two fundamental idea.
That, in a nutshell, is why I think all serious students should take calculus. You don't get to flit from topic to topic. You've got to get neck deep in only two ideas for the entire course. If you get them, everything falls into place; if you don't, it doesn't. There's no faking your way through it, or bluffing, or waiting until the next unit. Calculus: grok or fail. Via John D Cook

Coo-coo ca-cha! Coo-coo ca-cha!

Speaking of art, can I draw your attention to this masterpiece from Etsy seller sleepybowie?

Too brilliant for words.

Unfortunately all of the space in Villa SB7 reserved for pop-culture-related original artwork is already allocated to Big Lebowski pieces, otherwise one of these would be on it's way to my place already.

(HT Mrs SB7)

The best reason to be POTUS

Kids Prefer Cheese | Angus | Mungo move over, let Angus take over

Mungo may have run for Governor of NC, but this morning I realized that I, Angus, want to be President of the USA!

It hit me this morning when I saw this (more info here):

The President can put art from the National Gallery in his/her house!

So I could live for 8 years (people you KNOW I'm getting re-elected) in a House full of Richters, Hodgkins, Keifers, and more.
I want to post this not only because I also think that's the single best reason to be President, but because I would choose five of the eight artists Angus does: Richter, Keifer, Rothko, Johns, and Brancusi.

To that list I'd add Chuck Close (who I would also choose to do my official portrait, if he'd be willing), Sol Lewitt, and Roy Lichtenstein. I'd love to have a Leo Villareal, but the NGA has only one piece of his, and it's sort of built into the building. A bit tough to move.

If I could grab some NGA pieces by non-Americans, I'd definitely snatch a Turner (probably "Approach to Venice") and a Monet or two ("Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset" and "The Houses of Parliament, Sunset").

And I haven't even looked through the collection of the National Portrait Gallery yet. Oh shit, you guys I would be swimming in so much excellent art if I was president! I wouldn't even be able to choose. I'd just tell them to bring over a couple news crates every week and rotate things in and out randomly, just to keep me on my toes.

I wonder if I letter from the Oval Office could get Jim Campbell to donate something to the National Gallery?

PS The second best reason to be President is that every time you think "why is it that..." or "what's the deal with..." or "how does..." you can just assign someone to go figure out the answer, write a report, and brief you on it.

PPS The third best reason is only a plus for men: if your hair falls out while in office you have the world's single best excuse: "I'm under a lot of stress right now, what with being the Leader of the Free World and all." This is why it's a total shame that only dudes with great hair can get elected.

06 September 2012

Retail Managers: Do This

View from the Porch | Tam | No, seriously, stop touching it.

(I went to check out the store's web page. Oh, look, another little gun store open from 10-6 on Tuesday through Friday and 8-4 on Saturday. What is it with these little hobby businesses and their "Catering to the Unemployed" hours? If you are in the retail business, you need to be open when the people who can afford to purchase your wares are not at work. Notice how most national retail chains are open 'til 9PM? They didn't pull that number out of a hat, Cletus. And hire you a Shabbat Goy from 1-5 on Sundays.)
Yes. Thank you. Retailers: pick at least a day or two to stay open late. The farther your products are down my hierarchy of needs, the more critical this becomes.

Although I have to give them credit for actually having their hours on their website. Yes, yes, this sounds so damn simple and obvious that it's almost the equivalent of giving someone +10 points for spelling their name correctly on their exam paper, but sadly I still run across companies who don't bother to list their hours.

And don't get me started on the restaurants whose entire web presence is confined to Yelp.

05 September 2012

Psychological Advantages vs Avowed Advantages

Rhymes With Cars & Girls | Sonic Charmer | Links

People are missing the point when they cite this article to say that organic food is a ‘scam’. When people buy organic food, it isn’t objectively healthier food they’re trying to buy, it’s status, as well as something akin to what I can only characterize as psychological soothing. From that perspective it’s not obvious that organic food isn’t a bargain.
The internal benefit of organic food is righteousness and the external benefit is status, but the avowed benefit is health. If we're going to have adult relationships with each other it's worthwhile stripping away the rationalized smoke screens to force people to confront their real motivations. And if we're going to be setting public policy about these things, it's absolutely imperative we identify people's actual desires to denude them of the reasonable-sounding-but-false rationalizations they cloak themselves in.


Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | A Truly Bad Study

Imagine this study: An academic who is a strong Democrat wants to do a study to discover if Republicans suffer from a psychological tendency to bizarre conspiracy theories. OK, the reasonable mind would already be worried about this. The academic says his methodology will be an online survey of the first 1000 people who reply to him from the comment sections of certain blogs. This is obviously terrible -- a 12-year-old today understands the problems with such online surveys. But the best part is that he advertises the survey only on left-wing sites like the Daily Kos, telling anyone from those heavily Democratic sites that if they self-identify as Republicans, they can take this survey and their survey responses will be published as typical of Republicans. Anyone predict what he would get?

It is hard to believe that even in this post-modern academic world, that such a piece of garbage could get published. But it did. The only difference is that the academic was a strong believer in global warming, he was writing about skeptics, and sought out survey respondents only on strong-believer sites. What makes this story particularly delicious is the juxtaposition of the author's self-appointed role as defender of science with his atrocious scientific methodology. The whole story is simply amazing, and you can read about it at JoNova's site.

Wow. This is astonishingly poorly done. Just astoundingly bad. Not even wrong levels of badness.

I've actually read quite a few of Lewandowsky's cog sci and neural nets papers. It's solid work. He's certainly capable of being intelligent and rational. That only makes this study all the more worrisome. If he did sloppy CogSci/NN stuff and then did sloppy climate research, I could at least conclude he's just a perennial half-wit. Better that this study be vomited up by some intellectual slob than a sharp thinker who decided to let himself be sloppy and dishonest as soon as politics entered the picture.