Thursday, December 22, 2011

Calculating Generosity and Old Refrigerators

Generous People Are Just Being Smart

In economics there are a number of thresholds beyond which the behavior of rationally self-interested agents changes, based on subsistence or biological set-points of humans. For example, there are diminishing returns in happiness to increasing wealth, once basic needs are met (although this point has become contentious of late).

We would also expect cultural values to change in wealthy societies. In a poor and unpredictable society, possessions are few, frequently used, and critical for economic survival. Consequently people are highly risk averse and discount the future, and don't let their few things out of their sight. In a wealthy and predictable society, there may be more value to be had from your possessions; specifically, social capital from allowing others to use them. That is, generous people are really just smart. (That doesn't diminish their niceness at all.)

A qualitative equation for sharing possession would look like this:


social capital for the future,
+ pleasure from seeing friends benefit,
+ status from interacting with more powerful person or signaling wealth by helping a lesser person

- utility lost while possession is loaned out,
- value of possession relative to overall wealth,
- chance of the item getting damaged, lost or stolen (if an object is changing hands)

- If you have powerful, rich friends or people who have access to goods and services you don't, the ROI is big, and this favors your being generous with them. Note that social capital is not just directly an IOU, but a relationship that's been built or reinforced. (See Benjamin Franklin's anecdotal trick to turn an enemy into a friend this way.)

- If you're a nice person and gain utility from seeing people happy, that favors your being generous.

- The more people know about your generosity, the better (if you gain status based on the person you loaned something to, or by helping those less fortunate.)

- If you use the item a lot, that counts against being generous with it.

- If the item is valuable, and/or if there's a significant chance of its not coming back in one piece, or you have poor information to evaluate those chances (i.e. you don't know the person well), that counts against being generous. As the value of the item increases relative to the value of your wealth, that counts against being generous.

The social capital built by economic interactions has been a major part of trade transactions for most of our history; most people who traded knew each other over the long-term until the last century or two. This may explain why in disparate places in the developing world, refusal to barter is taken by merchants as an insult - which would be very, very strange if they were only maximizing money. The bartering process extends the social contact. In my anecdotal experience, marketeers in these places in the world have caught on and realize that bartering is a tradition they don't mind parting with.

A Theory of Refrigerators In Front Yards

Conversely, hoarders may be irrational or stupid, believing they can gain value from objects that they store, often with the intent to fix or restore them. The type of hoarder I'm talking about here is a hoarder of things (machines, tools and objects, rather than paper records or sentimental objects). The hoarding of machines is much more often seen in males, especially those which plan to fix or amend them eventually.

Why do object-hoarders keep their objects for so long? We might assume that their economic "problem-solving" is intact but their estimations of some of the variables plugged into the decision process are off:


estimation of mark-up you can get, i.e. value added to purchase price by labor

minus (inconvenience of storing it)*(belief how fast it will move)

That is to say:

- The clutter doesn't motivate them sufficiently (this is more likely the case on a large plot of rural land than in a city apartment)
- They have an unrealistic idea of how soon a buyer might appear
- They have an unrealistic valuation of the objects, in part because of an unrealistic valuation of their own skills and attention to repair them in the future

Gift-Giving; and In New York and Asia

Matt Yglesias writes about the irrational economics of gift-giving; for example, on average, gifts are worth less to the recipient than they are the market (Yglesias cites estimates from 10 to 33%). This apparently stupid custom makes us wonder what else is being maximized here. Thorstein Veblen wrote about conspicuous consumption (and gift-giving) as a form of status signalling, and used the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest tradition of potlatch as an extreme example. Orgies of mutually ruinous gift-giving make perfect sense only if you're trying to impress people with your wealth. Asymmetric gift-giving can also make sense if it's an emotional experience you're trying to create, and it's starting or reinforcing a social relationship that will hopefully be of value to both parties; of if you're just looking for status from the giving of the gift.

Many of us explicitly tell family members that if there is anything to be given at the holidays, it's cold hard cash. Unlike that sweater you'll never wear, there's no loss there - it has the same value in your pocket as on the market. And indeed, direct cash gifts are the norm in some places in the world and even one region in the United States. New Yorkers give money at weddings; most Americans outside New York consider this crass. East Asians are more likely than Westerners to give money on holidays.

What is interesting here is that East Asian cultures have a rich tradition of gift-giving to reinforce relationships, but among family and close friends cash is acceptable or even expected. And it's worth asking whether we think of East Asians as better or worse rational optimizers (on average) than other groups of people, and whether New Yorkers as better or worse rational optimizers than other Americans. These folks might be on to something. So to your boss, take the time to think of something nice, but send your sister a cash card.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Revolting Syrian

Coverage of the Syrian uprising. In the links at right also.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Fraction of Chinese Economic Success Is From Stolen Data?

A report in Business Week covers China's cyber-warfare, and links to McAfee's report, which doesn't mention China by name but might as well. (Oddly, only a single article on Xinhua's English edition mentions the McAfee investigation and comes to the opposite conclusion, that no single nation is thought to be behind the attacks. The Chinese edition's front page today has not a single mention of it.)

Much is made of China's rise, but is there something to be learned here? Is there a way to estimate the value of the stolen data, and its impact on that growth? It's often thought that shame is a better tool than guilt to influence our frenemies across the Pacific; maybe a casual mention by the Obama administration of this interesting form of foreign aid might provoke an actual discussion.

One of the vulnerabilities of an advanced and open society is that China has no trade secrets we'd like to steal - but it would be good if all the cleverness we applied to Stuxnet, and all the enthusiasm of Wikileaks activists were being turned to infiltrating the government systems of the most powerful dictatorship in the world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Things You May Not Have Known About James Earl Ray

First and most mind-blowing to me, some members of the King family don't think Ray was MLK's assassin.

Second was that he lived in Los Angeles in 1967-68 and got a nose job while he was there. Prior to that he tried to become a porn director in Mexico. Very twenty-first century of him. While he was in L.A. he volunteered for George Wallace. For all the fetishizing of 1960s California history that goes on, I've never once heard of this connection; I guess it doesn't fit the narrative.

And finally, the aforementioned deeds were all committed while he was a prison escapee. Ray was already a convicted violent criminal with multiple crimes in several states to his name. He managed to escape again after he was imprisoned for King's assassination, in 1977.

I've just pulled out what were to me the most surprising facts but I just got these from the James Earl Ray Wikipedia page.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Asian Students Not Checking "Asian"

Asian and part-Asian students, aware of the well-studied bias against high-performing Asian students in college admissions, are now avoiding checking Asian on their applications. Things are only going to get worse for Asian applicants: the Obama administration has recently relaxed restrictions on the use of race in college admissions, and in California specifically, Jerry Brown wants to go further. Of course, many of these students have ambivalent feelings about this.

Ambivalent Asian students: I'm going to solve this for you. Don't check Asian. Why is it okay for you to do this?

- First and foremost, because you're dealing with a badly immoral system. Let the admissions offices squeal all they want - the day they stop discriminating against you based on your race is the day you'll stop not checking your true background. If you woke up two centuries in the past, and the house you were in was harboring escaped slaves, would you lie to the police who came looking for them? Of course you would. Just like you're going to lie to the people who are treating groups of people differently today based on ethnic background.

- One concern seems to be that somehow students are "selling out", "selling their soul", or "turning their back on their community". Seriously? A mark on one piece of paper has that much effect on the identity you'll project in your life? Either don't complete that section, or say "not Asian", and forget about it. If your surname gives you away, then, and I mean this seriously, do a legal name change. Then change it back once you're in. Again, seriously. You have to weigh the annoying paperwork against the 250 SAT point advantage you'll get.

- From a purely selfish standpoint, I as an American adult want you to get into a good school where your potential is realized, based on your actual academic performance. Do it for me, and do it for yourself, for your country and future economy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

SCOTUS: Bone Marrow Donors Can Be Compensated

Reported by Alex Tabarrok here. Egg donors might be next, then kidneys? There are coercive kidney donations going on already in East Asia; clearly this exchange does occur already elsewhere and is not morally optimal.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Centrality of State Capitals Doesn't Matter

The center of population of the United States over time, migrating progressively west from Washington D.C. Does this matter?

Political entities try to locate their capital cities centrally, assuming that this facilitates administration of the entire territory. Consequently, we would expect to see that development indicators would correlate with centrality of capitals. I looked at data from American states, which are more standardized culturally and otherwise than the full set of world capitals would be. Using U.S. state data, the central capital assumption is false.

I compared per capita income, well-being, and Gini data for each U.S. state against the distance between from the geographic center of each state to the capital of each state, both in absolute terms and adjusted for the size of the state (against the square root of the total area including water).

As seen below, the R-squareds for linear correlations are very weak. If not, then what correlations there are, are almost invariably the opposite of what the central capital assumption would predict. (Correlations are shown by + or - in the tables.) That is, the further the capital is from the center of the state, the higher the well-being and per capita income, and the lower the income inequality. I'm not going to take up space with the noisy scatter plots so here's a table of the correlation strengths:

MeasureR squared, AbsoluteAdjusted
Well-being+, 0.0751+, 0.0651
Per cap income+, 0.0099+, 0.0773
Gini-, 0.066-, 0.0266

Because geographic center in this case is really a proxy for center of population - does it really matter if the capital is equally near an empty quarter as to an urban area? - I also compared these metrics to capital-to-population center distance, with similar lack of correlation.

MeasureR squared, AbsoluteAdjusted
Well-being+, 0.0311+, 0.0004
Per cap income+, 0.0131+, 0.0738
Gini-, 0.0126+, 0.0086
(Data can be provided upon request.)
See here for a map of population centers.

Of course there are outliers on the scatter-plots in terms of distance from capital to population or geographic center (especially Florida and Alaska) but removing them never resulted in significant changes and often actually lowered the already near-zero R-squared. Sometimes taking out the outliers reversed the correlation, but again the R-squared didn’t change much (biggest R-squared improvement with outliers where the correlation reversed was 0.0385 for Gini relating to capital distance from population center as opposed to 0.0126 with outliers, and the correlation went from negative to positive; still no signal.)

What are the implications or explanations here?

- The obvious one: that access to the capital doesn't matter for human development.

- That there are confounding factors; especially since the size of states varies non-randomly with their location and date of entry into the Union, which in turn non-randomly varies with their population density and types of economies.

- That in fact there has been sufficient wealth redistribution by the central national government to erase differences introduced by differing access to the capital (i.e. that having non-central capitals might have indeed hurt some states, but they get support from the Federal government that conceals this.)

- That geographic centrality is only a proxy for proximity to population that's being served, which is rarely distributed exactly evenly throughout a territory; perhaps doing this same analysis and taking into account center of population would give different and/or stronger correlations.

At the national level, I've often wondered what if any harm has been done in leaving the American capital in the original center of the U.S. (along the central East Coast) rather than moving it to Kansas City. Barring scale effects, based on this data, it's more likely that the answer is none at all.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Obama's Victory in East Asia

It's time to celebrate a very big and very smart win, and give credit where credit is due.

The greatest long-term political threat in the world - narrowly, to American interests, and broadly, to human well-being in general - is China. China's economic ascendance is emphatically a good thing for its own people's happiness. China's continued existence as an oligarchy is not good for anyone's happiness. This is why the continuing foreign policy focus of many in the U.S. political establishment on the Middle East is so worrying. The future is in the relationship between East Asia and the Europhone world, and especially between the U.S. and China.

That's why I feel like the last two months of foreign policy moves by the Whitehouse have single-handedly justified my own vote in 2008. I'm thrilled with the attention that's being paid to East Asia, let alone with what this administration has pulled off, and saddened that it's such a back page item inside the U.S., not just to the general public but to the GOP - a GOP that would have us believe it's still a defense-and-foreign policy party. I wish it were - but when Republican voters can countenance someone like Herman Cain who didn't even know China had nuclear weapons, that credibility is badly damaged.

The following passage has been bouncing around the blogosphere, and I hope it keeps bouncing:

The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China's column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn't enough, a critical mass of the region's countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China's territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers...The diplomatic blitzkrieg moved so fast and on so many fronts, with the strokes falling so hard and in such rapid succession, that China was unable to develop an organized and coherent response...the US has reasserted its primacy in a convincing way. The US acted, received strikingly widespread support, and China backed down.
That is in fact what happened, and it was as decisive a diplomatic victory as anyone is likely to see. Congratulations should go to President Obama and his national security team. (Full piece here at the American Interest.)

Finally, it's dawned on people in Washington that our continually-rising creditor-cum-military competitor is important!

From a foreign policy standpoint China and East Asia can only be America's top priority. Even neocon intellectuals like Frank Fukushima have openly stated the Middle East's throwback's represent a bump in the road, a desperate last self-immolation in the face of inevitable modernity. I just hope the American public realizes how much more the CCP merits our attention than a scattering of illiterate death-cult members.

Is That Gravy...or ANTHRAX?

"...when markets respond to the demands of Muslim consumers, freedom dies."

- Adam Serwer at Mother Jones, on Pamela Geller's Islamic turkey warnings

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Kinetic Sculpture, George Rhoads (Boston Children's Hospital)

I'm a sucker for these. The one in the Terminal C baggage carousel at the Philly Airport (along with others presumably) has mechanisms that behave out of phase with respect to the rest of the device, and are themselves altered by their interactions with the balls in the sculpture. Watch one of these for very long and you're likely to meditate on questions of determinism, digital vs. analog information, and irrational numbers. Here's Mr. Rhoads's website.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Surfing as Signalling

Recently I learned to surf. And I'll tell you what, I was pretty pissed at how many kooks there were at my break yesterday. (Just kidding.) But seriously, it was pretty flat, which left me with plenty of time to wonder why people surf. I haven't seen a rigorous quantitative survey, but from my own discussions, it seems to be some combination of it's fun, and the "lifestyle". This raises questions, most of which have obvious answers, but which people in the surf community nonetheless don't usually seem to address directly:

1) If it's really just for fun and lifestyle, then why do such things as surf competitions exist? Why would anyone care to enter them, unless status was involved? (An unrefined reader might also be tempted to ask why someone would blog about the experience. But you're not such a philistine as to ask such an uninteresting question.)

2) Heterosexual women seem often to be attracted to heterosexual males who surf. This would seem to be a benefit of the lifestyle. So why are males who surf so coy about explicitly citing this reason? (Yes, there are female surfers but they're in the minority, although that I'm aware of there's no taboo or pressure against women who would otherwise be interested in surfing. In the lineup I would estimate it was less than 10% and this seems ballpark for what I've noticed before. If males are using surfing to signal fitness to females, then the gender disparity makes more sense.)

3) It seems strange that, for the combined total of less than 1 minute per hour you're likely to be standing on their board, people are willing to take hours out of their day, secure the equipment to the car before and after, clean off the wetsuit, etc. There are other forms of recreation where the activity itself is less than half the time doing it, but even (for example) the most crowded East Coast ski resort features a better activity-to-prep time ratio. It could be that just relaxing on the board in the water is part of the reward, or (referring to #2) being seen going back and forth with the equipment, to signal you surf.

There is certainly an opportunity to do some North San Diego County cultural anthropology here. Every time I'm in Encinitas I can't help but think there must be a PhD thesis waiting.

Presidential Party Transitions and Incumbents

Among others, Nate Silver has been putting a Romney-Obama match-up at nearly even odds. This surprises me, but apparently not InTrade, which as of this writing has a similar valuation (51.7% in favor of Obama). Then again Romney tends to poll the same right now as a generic Republican, and maybe as people differentiate him from that, these numbers will change.

The upcoming election makes it interesting to look at incumbents and changes of the guard. Since the start of the twentieth century, there have been 19 elections where an incumbent ran. Of those, the incumbent won 14 times (74%). Of the 5 that lost, 3 had clearly extraordinary circumstances. Taft lost when he faced not only the Democrat Wilson but also TR's Bull Moose party, which split off a large chunk of the Republican vote; Hoover lost after the Depression began; Ford lost after Watergate. (The remaining two were Carter and Bush 1.)

For presidents of >1 term it's different. Since 1900, if you've been in more than 1 term (which counts partial terms), 2-to-1 at the end of your last eligible term, you're replaced by someone from the other party. This happened to Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Clinton, and Bush 2; whereas for >1 term presidents replaced by someone from the same party (3 presidents), all 3 were Republicans, and 2 of 3 VPs succeeding presidents - TR to Taft and Reagan to Bush 1. Hoover was the third, and was not Coolidge's VP.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The "Marriage Light" From Sex and the City

The characters from Sex and the City once discussed the "marriage light": their observation that men inexplicably seem to marry lower-quality women than the ones they dated, and this is best explained by something internal to the man's decision-making process rather than any observable characteristics of the woman who've dated him. It's as if, like a taxi, his marriage light goes on, and he walks down the aisle with the next one.

It's possible that it's not really a marriage light, but that there is something completely internal to the man's decision process that influences it; what looks like a marriage light is actually an interaction between the women he's dating, and this mysterious internal state. A quick-and-dirty explanation might be as follows. (Of course it generalizes about both genders, but about the calculation that men are making, based on what we seem to be maximizing; woman are free to chime in with their guess as to the variables underlying their own decision process.) Heterosexual men value sex with multiple partners, but they also want stability and children. Most women will not remain in a relationship with a man who has sex with other partners. At the same time, men do want a high-quality mate when they do commit. Therefore, to a man, the decision to marry is a trade-off: he gains a stable mate who will bear and help raise his children, but he will lose sex with multiple partners. He must balance the quality of the current sexual partner on one hand, against the prospect of number and quality of future sexual partners. As he gets older, and that future gets shorter, and the potential mates decrease in number and quality, his commitment threshold will drop. His current sexual partners' quality will be somewhat stochastic, but his own threshold will change (probably decrease) much more predictably over time. This is how a low-quality mate at 35 can receive a marriage proposal when the same or even higher-quality mate would not have received one at 25.

Graphically, it would look like this, with marriage occuring where the two functions are equal:

The straight line is his more-or-less predictable commitment threshold. At the start, Angelina Jolie could fling herself at him but he would hold out because his future is wide open. At the end, he knows time is running out. (It can be more complicated than this; more later.)

The curvy line is the women who've actually been available and mutually interested in him. Maybe the first peak is his senior year in college when he's big man on campus; then suddenly he graduates and drifts for a little while. The second peak came when he moved to a new city and got a real job. Then, another trough, as he found that he hated his job, got run down and grouchy and generally not pleasant. Finally he hits his personal global maximum. He has a new job that he loves, he finally figured out how to dress like a grown-up, he's a gym-rat in better shape than he was in college, and he meets a fantastic girl who, friends whisper, might be The One. But he's still looking for something more, and Seinfeld-like he focuses on her minor flaws. He lets her get away, focuses on the new business. Next thing he knows, he's 39 and overweight, and the game of romantic musical chairs that took place while he was working has left him with few choices. At his wedding, his female friends wonder what he sees in this one versus the ex from his global max period, who hiked across the Kamchatka Peninsula with him and was a well-known local artist and was beautiful. But hey - his friends are nice so they avoid mentioning her to his new wife. Sound familiar?

It's likely that divorce is not merely the reverse of commitment. Men tell their wives they'd marry them all over again. It's doubtful that this is always true. The social pressure and administrative and emotional baggage that comes with marriage may have the effect of lowering the threshold to which the wife's quality has to drop to reverse the commitment. If she drops below the thick black line, he wouldn't have married her in the first place but he won't divorce her. But if she drops below the gray line it's over. In some cultures with arranged marriages and low divorce rates, the gap between the thick black line and "marriage cushion" line might be quite large because of family interrelationships.

While I've written this as a heterosexual male, from the standpoint of a heterosexual male, it's interesting that professional women in large cities in the developed world have become more explicit about having their own commitment threshold curves. (In contrast, the idea of a commitment threshold is meaningless for women in pre-demographic-transition cultures that force them to sit on the sidelines pining to be chosen, their value almost entirely determined by qualities they have no control over developing, usually fertility indicators.) While the commitment threshold in women is also determined by age and quality, differences remain; namely, the importance that members of each gender assign on average to earning power, sex, and fertility in potential partners.

There are variations on the shape of the commitment threshold line for men, as follow:

- It might not start out at maximum as I have depicted here. That is, an 18 year-old might actually settle down with Angelina Jolie because he might not really believe that he does have future prospects; he doesn't know what else is out there. As he gets a little older, and so does she, he gets confident, and he realizes he would actually have future prospects, were he single; his newly-positive commitment threshold curve climbs far enough above his wife's quality that even the social-pressure cushion of marriage can't close the gap, and he dumps her.

- If a man's future prospects change dramatically - he gets in shape, he gets a great job - then if his commitment threshold curve is a reflection of his future prospects, it will jump as well. (The American philosopher Christopher Rock reminds us that a man is only as faithful as his options.) On the other hand, if the commitment curve were at some constant set point, we should expect that (for example) an actor in a surprise hit film who can suddenly date a much higher quality woman would marry the first high quality woman right away. This is not what happens.

- The commitment threshold line might not reflect reality. If the man's estimation of future amount and quality of sex partners is unrealistically high (unbelievable, I know!) he will inexplicably hold out even though his current partner might be, as his exasperated friends try to convince him, "the best thing that ever happened to you". In my experience, this is resolved in one of two ways: the male remains uncommitted for life to avoid the injury to his inflated self-image, or the slope of his commitment threshold gets very steeply negative later in life as his estimate of his prospects comes crashing back to Earth. (A game theory note: if all males in a dating community collude to hold out, either from unrealistic self-assessment or another reason, females who are interested in an earlier marriage will have to bargain more aggressively. Kate Bolick's outstanding Atlantic article might make one think that men in New York are doing exactly this.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Maxx Moses, Concrete Alchemy

Maxx Moses, El Cajon, California

Maxx Moses, JamJar, Dubai, UAE

More of his concrete alchemy here.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Marijuana Showdown: The Feds vs. California

[Final addition: the Iranian government is implicated in an assassination attempt. Bad; but what's worse is they were outsourcing the actual labor to the Zetas on the ground in North America, one of several large, paramilitar criminal organizations that have been assassinating public figures in Mexico for over a decade. A failed state on our southern border is at least as big a problem as Iranian regional ambitions, but oil politics ensure we care more about the safety of Saudi officials more than Americans living in border states. The Zetas would have nothing without the revenues given to them by our big-government marijuana laws, and they wouldn't be getting hired by the Iranians to do hits in Washington D.C. Somehow that's getting lost in this story.]

[Added later: much scarier than the coming dispensary raids and shutdowns is the IRS ruling described in this article that will cripple the marijuana industry, and drive it entirely back underground. Because it's essentially an accounting law change it's much less mediagenic than the specter of jack-booted DEA agents busting down doors, but it's actually a much bigger threat. This is the cheapest trick the Obama adminsitration has used so far because it's not apparently a law enforcement effort but it will be no less effective for that.]

Above: a small business that Obama's thugs are trying to shut down. Not a joke. If you call yourself pro-small-government and you aren't outraged by that, you have to stop calling yourself pro-small-government.

Medical marijuana is legal in California, but still illegal under Federal law. Despite Obama's promises to the contrary, he's continuing to waste your money pursuing marijuana dispensaries that are legal in their own states. There's about to be a showdown in California. Jerry Brown, here's your chance to show voters what you're made of, and if you're really serious about defending civil liberties.

Having sub-national entities with their own governments is a good idea because as they experiment locally, the rest of us can benefit from what works, and avoid what doesn't. Of course that's only the case if those sub-national entities are allowed to continue the experiment. It's also worth asking what the results of the experiment have been. What's happened in California since these dispensaries proliferate that's been so bad? By the way, here's the SoCal map.

If your rallying cries are "small government" and "states' rights", now would be a great time to come to California's defense. Somehow I'm not holding my breath for any collective outrage from the Tea Party. The Tea Party and the right wing in general only seem to worry about keeping government small in those cases where it intrudes on Southern cultural values.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Key to Happiness (and Less Violence): Multiple Status Hierarchies

Stephen Pinker has been making the rounds talking about the decline of violence, and in his Edge talk he gets a great question from Jaron Lanier. It's a well-studied phenomenon that being part of more social circles means lower stress, which accords well with the Robert Frank observation that status is a zero-sum game. That is to say, if you play status games (which if you're human, you do) then the best way to avoid stress is to play multiple ones at a time, because people will always try to climb, which in zero-sum games necessarily means they're trying to take status away from you. So if you lose, at least you only lose points in one of the several games you're playing. In contrast, if your whole social world is your job, or your family, or your sports team, etc., then there's a lot more pressure on your status within that team, and if something happens to expel you from grace within that circle you're screwed - and you know it, which is why you're more stressed. Segueing back to Pinker's talk, such unipolar social stress can translate to violence:

JARON LANIER: I'd like to hypothesize one civilizing force, which is the perception of multiple overlapping hierarchies of status. I've observed this to be helpful in work dealing with rehabilitating gang members in Oakland. When there are multiple overlapping hierarchies of status there is more of a chance of people not fighting their superior within the status chain. And the more severe the imposition of the single hierarchy in people's lives, the more likely they are to engage in conflict with one another. Part of America's success is the confusion factor of understanding how to assess somebody's status.

STEVEN PINKER: That's a profound observation. There are studies showing that violence is more common when people are confined to one pecking order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hierarchy, whereas if they belong to multiple overlapping groups, they can always seek affirmations of worth elsewhere. For example, if I do something stupid when I'm driving, and someone gives me the finger and calls me an asshole, it's not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured professor at Harvard. On the other hand, if status among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun.

Every time we read about a workplace shooting, it's difficult to imagine that these men (almost invariably) are well-connected socially outside their office or plant, in sports or family or civic service groups. Pinker's full discussion here; he also points out the decline in autocracies, which also bodes well for decreased violence.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Problems of Animals Governing Ourselves: Paleo-Diets and Paleo-Politics

"A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern."

-Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair, November 2011

The idea behind the paleo diet is simple: many health problems (especially obesity) are linked to the consumption of foods which were not available, or not available in unlimited quantity, to our distant ancestors. Our bodies greedily store salt, because it was in limiting supply until the last few centuries, but evolution didn't anticipate McDonalds. Our bodies drive us to constantly seek sweets because for thousands of centuries, our ancestors would be thrilled to find one ripe fruit per week, as opposed to a rack of candy bars at every gas station. There was no reason to develop discipline, because nature did that for us. Salt and sugar weren't "bad stuff" because there wasn't very much of it around, so it was good to constantly crave it. Now that we've solved these scarcities and it's everywhere, our lack of an off-switch for these things damages us, and to avoid this, some people have consciously chosen a return to hunter-gatherer food sources.

But think about this for very long, and you quickly realize that our diet and diet-related health are just one example of the neurological mismatch that we Westerners, and in particular we Americans, have developed with our man-made environment. It generalizes to other aspects of our behavior, and so it may be that several challenges in modern American culture have a unifying diagnosis. Culture and economics are results of the aggregate activity of human nervous systems. It shouldn't be surprising that an animal which wandered out of its home continent fifty thousand years ago has not suddenly become uber-rational and infinitely malleable in its behavior, although many of these animals have assumed themselves to have achieved this. This is to say, our behavior has limited plasticity. The irony is that our cultural environment has so rapidly changed the physical environment we now inhabit - we've truly remade our world in our image - that it's not just diet where we're mismatched with the terrarium we've built for ourselves. Potato chips may actually be the least of our worries.

The dramatic change which is also the best candidate for unifying diagnosis is instant gratification, made most commonplace in the most consumer-driven society so far in history. What consumerism really means is that of any civilization in history, ours is most specialized in giving each other what we want right now, and this has not surprisingly changed our behavior. (If you've ever seen the sad spectacle at the zoo of lions, one of the most fearsome apex predators the planet has produced, patiently and docilely waiting to be fed, you start to understand this concern.) The obstacle-free rewards-for-nothing to which we've become accustomed have damaged us in at least three realms: diet and all the attendant health problems of obesity and heart disease; belief systems and epistemological closure; and the politics of taxation.

The problem with the politics of taxation need little exposition; people demand more services and refuse to pay for them, and somehow avoid seeing the disconnect; a certain unattributed quote about people in democracies voting themselves the contents of the treasuries comes to mind, all the more frightening because it's hard to make an argument as to why it's not correct. As for consumerism's role in epistemological closure: although confirmation bias is certainly not new, that so many of us maintain patently false beliefs despite a crush of information does seem to be something new - because we know what it makes us feel good to believe, and it hurts a little to change your mind, so nothing else matters. (It may be no mistake that dopamine, our main reward-anticipation compound, is elevated in psychotic people who often have delusional beliefs; you connect everything you see to the conspiracy you believe in, because you already thought it was true and feels good.)

Having been discussing this with people for a while, it was with understandable interest that I read the Vanity Fair article about municipal budget woes and California in particular, in which the journalist interviews a UCLA neuroscientist. This lengthy excerpt will end the post, because there's nothing more to say.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, a British neuroscientist at U.C.L.A. with a theory about American life. He thinks the dysfunction in America's society is a by-product of America's success. In academic papers and a popular book, American Mania, Whybrow argues, in effect, that human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity. It was not designed, at least originally, for an environment of extreme abundance. "Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited," he says cheerfully. "We've got the core of the average lizard." Wrapped around this reptilian core, he explains, is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. "The only problem," he says, "is our passions are still driven by the lizard core. We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food." Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now neuroscience does, too. "When faced with abundance, the brain's ancient reward pathways are difficult to suppress," says Whybrow. "In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake."

The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want. The effect on the brain of lots of instant gratification is something like the effect on the right hand of cutting off the left: the more the lizard core is used the more dominant it becomes. "What we're doing is minimizing the use of the part of the brain that lizards don't have," says Whybrow. "We've created physiological dysfunction. We have lost the ability to self-regulate, at all levels of the society. The $5 million you get paid at Goldman Sachs if you do whatever they ask you to do—that is the chocolate cake upgraded."

...It's a problem of people taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences. It's not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans. Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They'd been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Drought in East Africa is Bad; You Can Help

They need our help in Somalia and the refugee camps in Kenya. You can be a good guy. Every bit counts. Best of all, Operation USA is a reputable charity that makes sure "it gets there".

From Reuters.

Being completely pragmatic from a foreign policy standpoint, Kenya and Ethiopia are regional allies who both border Somalia, and in addition, bordering Ethiopia there's a brand-new country nearby (South Sudan) that doesn't need this stress early in its life, and would certainly draw closer to the communities around the world that helped it in its infancy. (In fact here's their Cassava beer.)

A New Resource for Drug Violence: Wikinarco

The cartels in northern Mexico are determined to prevent Arab-Spring-inducing technology from reaching their part of the world. Here is WikiNarco (in Spanish).

If you measure "news blackouts" in terms of low news-stories-per-death regions, northern Mexico has to be #1. There on our border and we hardly ever read about this alarming approach to state failure. More Americans should post these things, because one thing the narcos seem to be afraid of is the possibility of international attention from U.S. law enforcement.

The tried-and-true best and fastest way to rob these gangs of their revenue? Legalize.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Tech Incubator Eviction from San Francisco's Pier 38

Some San Francisco startups are losing their space because the Port of San Francisco is throwing them out. I have nothing to add to the story, and the quite-possibly-biasd narrative in Xconomy has holes in it you could drive a truck through. But it's worth comparing this story to another loss to the Bay Area, which was the eviction of the Pound, the awesomest metal venue that ever was, from another Port of SF structure. I post this only because I wonder how many people who frequented the Pound are also readers of Xconomy (actually, in San Francisco, probably more than you or I would guess). And the story was very much the same: the port throwing out a well-loved and characterful business from a space it had been renting.

This seems to be a pattern. The Port of San Francisco seems unusually heavy-handed and unfriendly to businesses that have productively repurposed their facilities, and voters (and the mayor's office) should be attention to this.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Capitalist Values of Burning Man

Burners: I promise this post will really not pick on Burning Man or social progressive values in general. Based on the kind of writing that begins this way, I can't blame you if that's your expectation. I'm a one-time Burning Man attendee (2000, eons ago) and would go again if I had the time. I highly recommend it. I have only experienced culture shock once in my life, and it was on returning to "normalcy" after Burning Man. (If I'm a one-hit-wonder I don't think I should call myself a "Burner".) Lots of people I know are repeat customers; lots of people I know are on their way back from it at this very moment.

Open-mindedness is valuable, as are critiques of factions who self-identify as such. The reason that criticism is so important in this case is that when open-mindedness is institutionalized as a moral value - as it actually can and should be - there is a tendency to use self-perceived open-mindedness to insulate one's faction and one's own opinions from self-criticism with the following narrative: "My group/city/party/etc. pride ourselves on being open-minded and inclusive. Therefore, if an opinion differs from the prevailing wisdom in my group, it can only be the result of ignorance and close-mindedness. I'm right, you're wrong, shut up." Confirmation bias is like electricity; it finds the path of least resistance. That usually means straight through our most cherished values.

Maybe I've thought about this because I'm a very proud and patriotic (albeit currently exiled) San Francisco immigrant who also frequently finds myself in the role of apologist. I love that damn city, but the aforementioned "open-mindedness necessarily produces opinions that happen to agree with mine" reflex is all-too-often the subject of justified complaints. And one of the reasons I find Burning Man so interesting is observing the emergence of a common set of non-neutral values - "non-neutral" meaning judging some other values as mutually exclusive and rejecting them - which is something that it seems many Burning Man attendees and San Franciscans would deny they do, at least in the abstract. (But mention specific values and of course, if those values are not the right ones you'll quickly discover that indeed some values are rejected, leading in turn to an uncomfortable denial that they're rejecting values, or just to a statement that you're being unreasonable.)

So what's the connection between San Francisco and Burning Man? I will fully claim Burning Man as a cultural product that could only have come from that place, and a huge portion of its attendees every year hail from there. You're welcome, rest of world. (If you disagree with that, it's because you're ignorant and close-minded.)

The art was the main surprise for me. In innovation from just one year was easily the equal or superior of any museum I've ever been to anywhere in the world. From Rhino Beats.

But there's a counter-reflex toward the self-identified open-minded types, and this counter-reflex comes from people who love to stir things up - here I'm looking in the direction of otherwise smart and a little bit too self-satisfied young fiscal conservatives and libertarians. That counter-reflex is to smugly point out the existence of certain dogmatic, non-neutral values among self-described open-minded progressive types; or inconsistencies in their worldviews; or that they're more capitalist/carnivorous/consumerist/etc. than they will care to admit, ha ha ha! (Insert "We are not so different, you and I!" villain line here.) And as an aside to my fellow libertarians, these kinds of gotchas don't help the discussion, especially if we want to convince a group of very smart people that maybe rational agents acting individually to optimize their material self-interest is actually a good way to organize society. It's more of a terminology problem. "Material self-determination? Sign me up!", versus "Capitalism? No thanks!"

Hence it was with some dread that I clicked on a Big Government blog article about Burning Man. (H/T Patricia Iniguez of San Diego Skeptics in the Pub). While not completely without its whiffs of condescension and erstwhile-villainy, it's mostly devoid of this trouble-stirring nonsense and instead points out the free market underpinnings of Burning Man. Which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. In point of fact, Burning Man is what turned me from a somewhat vanilla social moderate Northeast Republican into a full-on libertarian. It was the revelation that here were thousands of people, who'd taken the trouble to go many miles from anywhere to use recreational drugs together where they weren't bothering anybody, and there were still law enforcement arrests in the camp. That's right: not only are our tax dollars still being spent on arresting them, but people get arrested for making choices about what to do with their own bodies. What a waste, what a misprioritization and a distortion of justice in a free society! If the state doesn't let you own yourself, then what can you own? This frightened me in a way it's hard to verbalize, and probably contributed to my culture shock, on leaving Burning Man and going back to the real world, upon seeing people who showed no sign of appreciating the flimsiness of this shared hallucination we call culture and civilization, standing in orderly lines at the airport as I was about to fly to Pittsburgh on business. But here's the kicker: what I didn't appreciate at the time is how much I was placing people in a binary opposition with myself in the more "open-minded" slot; and how normal people look once they wash the playa dust off and go back to the rest of their lives, to positively influence the rest of the world in gradual ways as a result of experiences like Burning Man. No doubt after I showered and changed, other Burning Man attendees saw me standing in line and had the same thoughts about me.

Adam Smith made clear that capitalism was a form of meta-selection: it's the system to find the best system. You need the most degrees of freedom possible to do that effectively. Burning Man, and the people who attend it, are living up to this promise, and it seems from this article that many of us understand this.

Quote of the Day

"They develop a set of oblique social norms to sustain their preferred equilibrium when threatened by intrusions of high quality."

From an Oxford sociology paper, via Mungowitz at Kids Prefer Cheese. While Mungowitz seems to think it's funny that an academic finds this novel, framing it this way will allow us to generalize this observation to the behavior of low-value-contributors in large institutions (public, private, wherever) and develop non-top-down strategies to disrupt it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Not an Alternate History Map

That's China's actual territorial waters claim. From this article. Much better and more thorough analysis of Chinese naval ambitions here.

(For actual alternate history go here.)

PSA: Bow Ties

A colleague was kind enough to volunteer for his friends' bow-tie instructional video:

How to Tie a Bow Tie from Keith Paugh on Vimeo.

I think this guy missed his calling.

Apparition, Peter Louis Bonfitto

Apparition, Peter Louis Bonfitto. More here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two Conspiracy Theories About Two Internet Companies

1) Is surrepetitious plausible deniability built into Facebook? Facebook is notoriously buggy. In particular sometimes users inexplicably can't see friends, or get error messages when they try to send friend requests to other users (this particular problem is affecting me right now). Of course, actual bugginess in a massive network is the simplest explanation. But Facebook isn't run by morons, and it's interesting that those errors which occur most seem to be exactly those which facilitate the kind of social "plausible deniability" that can lubricate complex group relationships. "Oh, I didn't know that you had dated X..." (when you did) or "I would have sent you a friend invite, but for some reason the system wouldn't let me" (when you had no intention of sending one). For this to work most effectively, it would have to be on the down low, or everyone would suspsect that this is what was going on, because they would be able to more effectively use the trick themselves.

2) Is Bitcoin bolstering its bubble by encouraging negative press? There's no shortage of (probably reasonable) scare stories comparing Bitcoin to various extraordinary popular delusions. The question at this point is: after this deluge of negative predictions from some very heavy hitters, what would it take to convince Bitcoin investors that there will eventually be a collapse? It seems that the Bitcoin bubble has already endured worse pricks than the 1920s stock market or the aughts housing market, and still the craze continues. (I retrodict that there are far more negative bitcoin articles for July 2011 than for the U.S. housing market in July 2006, and the Bitcoin market is much smaller.) Is it possible that right from the start, Bitcoin's most interested parties were good students of history in the sense that they actively pumped the internet with negative publicity? That way the bubble will build for much longer, because buyers-in will have been hearing panicked shouts to sell the whole time.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Why Is Romney Living in San Diego?

Mitt Romney bought a beachside house in San Diego last year. It's about 5 miles from where I'm sitting right now. I figured out which one was his based on a HuffPo article and 5 minutes with Google Maps.

Of course the Romney team must know that during the primaries, any connection to godless gay hippie elitist California is points off, especially for someone who already has enough trouble attracting social conservatives. But they're not stupid. What are they trading those votes for?

Imagine it's January 2012, and you're a reporter in Washington D.C., and you're going to get on a plane and fly either to Minneapolis, or to San Diego. In January. Where are you happier to go? And which candidate is going to get a more favorable write-up? The one you write after your run on the beach and your phone call to tell your relatives you're in La Jolla, or your dash from the airport to the rental car to the conference room and hope your eyelashes don't freeze from breath-condensation?

Rick Perry and the Confederacy

In a discussion which included Rick Perry's enthusiasm for the Confederacy:

The Confederacy was not a bunch of generally well-meaning dudes who went a little too far, it was a gang of racist traitors who launched a bloody war to defend a monstrously unjust institution [and tried to destroy the Union in the process - MC]. Having neo-Confederate sympathies in America should be equivalent to supporting the reconstituted Fascist party in Italy, or worse.

It's hard to think of an argument that could square keeping goverment out of our lives on one side, and the government encouraging ownership of human beings on the other. When you think "small government" I bet you don't next think "hellz yeah, slavery!"

Quote of the Day

"How about a [holi]day named after a generic old person? They vote too, and this could be done while limiting the "doc fix" to trick them into submission before preparing the ice floes. But how to make it polite? "Oldies Day" won't cut it..."

-Tyler Cowen on who will get the next U.S. national holiday

See? No one's using any of those.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ridiculous Moral Arguments in Business

Sometimes, a business with a government-backed monopoly on an activity thought to be morally dubious will make funny arguments against the start-up of similar businesses. Here you can read about American states with state-controlled liquor distribution, and the state stores saying as vaguely as possible that we shouldn't have more liquor stores, because they're evil.

The same silliness occurs with casinos and gambling, and especially lotteries. (This particular story reminds me of the hypocrisy around injuries in high school sports, vs. other high school activities). If we're going to rule that there are goods and services too dangerous for the free market, or dangerous enough that they should only exist as government-backed monopolies, we should have a transparent, automated rule for determining which goods and services those are. Otherwise, these decisions will always be made by exactly those parties that have conflicts of interest, and shouldn't be involved in the process.

El Niño and Wars

El Niño events increase the tendency to go to war. Compare with other work on the rainfall theory of democracy, and the tendency of centralized states to first emerge in marginal rainfall environments.

Ur, in the "Fertile" Crescent. It was a little greener 10,000 years ago, but certainly even then there were better places to start civilization. The relationship between city-states and soil fertility is inverted-U-shaped.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Expansion of Administration vs. Faculty at UCSD

A topic of immediate local relevance. The graphic speaks for itself. (Updated from earlier today; click here for the full size version. Suffice it to say the dotted line on top is senior management expanding.)

You like? Upvote at Reddit.

Source and explanation: "student fee" is full student fee. State Funding is CA funding to the UC General Fund. Both are adjusted for inflation to CPI-U. Student Fee and State Funding to the General Fund from UC Budget Operations. Number of faculty is full-time-hours equivalent of regular ladder-based faculty (most common type of faculty). Number of senior management is full SMG (Senior Management Group) & MSP (Manager and Senior Professional) count. Headcounts from stats summary data. Credit to James Wu of UCSD Young Americans for Liberty for putting together.

City Journal also ran an article about UC recently, Heather Macdonald: Less Academics, More Narcissism.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Toward a Physical Measure of Utility

"Electroencephalographic Topography Measurements of Experienced Utility", emphasis on experienced. Pedroni A. et al, The Journal of Neuroscience, 20 July 2011, 31(29): 10474-10480. The response they measured unexpectedly increased disproportionately increasing reward, i.e. it did not demonstrate diminishing returns but rather the opposite.

A measure of the mismatch between decision and reward utility, and understanding its biological basis and how it differs between individuals, would be excellent for psychology as well.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

If There Were a DEA and FDA For the Software Industry

[Note: Aaron Agostini responded critically to this post at his blog, A Polite Gunfight.]

Imagine if, long ago, we established not only an FDA for drugs, but also a parallel agency for software. The software industry's FDA would exist in order to protect computer users from bad programs - harmful, or low quality - and would require central approval of every single program writter. Of course this would produce grumbling for software engineers who just want to make a living, but the arrangement would indeed allow software-FDA to stop nasty malware before it made it onto the market.

Unfortunately, software-FDA then becomes inconsistent and over-conservative - always more reasons to say no than yes - and hurts computer users in the long run by decreasing the number and quality of programs available to them. For example: programs released back in the 1980s, even if they slowed your computer down and crashed all the time, would be allowed to remain by an unspoken grandfather agreement (too messy to recall them or investigate them now!) The old-school software makers would certainly not rock this boat, and the newer software companies wouldn't speak out for fear that they would be punished by software-FDA. The rules that you had to follow when developing software would be so byzantine that software companies would have to hire their own legal experts, who are expensive and say "No" a lot to developers' plans. Needless to say, it would be very hard for small software companies to survive, and software would cost more for consumers.

Above: A well-meaning officer from software-FDA confiscates a computer running Linux. Consumers don't understand it well enough and may harm themselves. Software-FDA also needs to protect the public from possible QC problems with open source software.

Meanwhile, new programs would be scrutinized even for infrequent damage, i.e. to one out of a thousand computers, and if the programmers couldn't explain exactly how the programs worked in every situation, they wouldn't be allowed to sell them. (Nobody knows how the old programs work, but they're still allowed to be sold; and certainly nobody is allowed to make an informed choice about the acceptable risk to them. The software consuming public doesn't understand enough to make these decisions.) Investors in new software companies are scared off by any program that shows real innovation, and the number of programs released per year starts to drop. Finally, the software-FDA does allow computer technicians to sell programs to consumers for uses other than for what the programs are specifically approved to do - even though software-FDA clearly doesn't trust these same technicians to evaluate whether the programs should be on the market in the first place. But people get used to this crazy inconsistency, so hardly anyone says anything.

And there would be a whole other government agency (the software-DEA), for the worst programs of all. There are certain programs, software-DEA says, that are SO BAD that they don't trust ANYBODY to use them responsibly - consumers OR computer technicians - so they put people in jail for buying and using them. Software-DEA even puts people in jail when these programs harm only the consumers' own computers, by their own consent. In fact software-DEA keeps putting people in jail even when some of the programs have been conclusively shown by computer scientists NOT to harm their computers. Not surprisingly, a black market will form around these programs, some of which are fun to use and pretty safe, and software-DEA will say, completely bass-ackwards, this proves these programs are bad, and must be kept illegal.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Refine Your Taste, Pay the Price

I argued previously that the main benefit of drinking wine is the ability it confers on you to signal your cultural refinement. At the end of the post I stated the reasons for intentionally destroying one's taste in wine:

I apply the same dismissal to wine as I do to sake. I've come to the conclusion that intentionally refining one's palate is a form of masochism that any self-respecting hedonist should reject. Why the hell would I ever deliberately make my palate more difficult to please? By developing your taste, you're intentionally making your marginal unit of pleasure more expensive - you're making yourself more difficult to please. If you have a bad case of wine signal-itis and you enjoy announcing to dining compatriots all the flaws you've found in the wine on the table in front of you, you might put it in perspective this way...That's why I'm intentionally letting what little refinement I've achieved go fallow, and I automatically order the cheapest table wine on the menu. Or I don't, and get a Coke.

Of course the counterargument is that if your ability to signal results in increased attraction of mates, business partners, or some other benefit, it may offset the greater expense of achieving the same hedonic experience.

So it was with some amusement that today I read about how Seth Roberts did the opposite - he inadvertently destroyed his enjoyment of sake by greatly refining his taste - all in a single day.

54'40" Was Fought: Alternate History #3

Previous entry in the alternate history series: The Alternate vs. Actual History Test.

Next entry in the alternate history series: Colonial Megafauna.

We're fortunate that today the land border between the U.S. and Canada is the longest undefended border on the planet. But there was an actual U.S. invasion plan for Canada for the 1920s and 30s, in anticipation of U.S. and U.K. interests' running afoul. (H/T Luke Muehlhauser.)

[Added later: guest-blogging at the Daily Dish, Alex Massie shares my rather pessimistic view of American military's chances against the British in the first half of the nineteenth century, specifically discussing the War of 1812.]

Keeping in the military mindset of the previous century, the U.S. planned to capitalize on its proximity and its access to the interior of the continent. The same considerations were likely what brought a reasonable end to the War of 1812. The British knew the U.S. couldn't match them on the seas, and demonstrated this by burning selected targets in Washington after sailing right up the Potomac, in retaliation for the American burning of Toronto. But they also knew that a military campaign to conquer the American interior was hopeless, and this is what the later War Plan Red capitalized on. Of course, fortunately (in the most perverse possible sense) World War II occurred and stopped a second War of 1812, and suddenly the idea of invading Canada – or the idea of worrying about British troops more than Japanese troops – seemed absurd. Britain was fighting for its life and there were friends of Britain's enemies bombing American territories.

There are actually several interesting but terrible ways that the U.S.-Canadian (and –British) relationship could have turned out much worse than it did as a result of war. The first is the possibility of a nineteenth century Canadian war. Immediately following the War of 1812 some admirably cool heads prevailed in London and Washington, and an agreement was made to co-develop the Pacific Northwest. (You will look a long time in world history for agreements between competing powers as rational as this one.) Then of course came the end of the agreement, with the 1845 slogan "54'40" or fight". (54'40" is the southern border of the Alaska panhandle. The U.S. was essentially demanding all of BC, and the southern half of the prairie provinces to boot.) Had this led to war, it is very likely that it would've meant a sound naval defeat for the U.S. that had major territorial implications, since most settlement and trade in the Oregon Country at that point moved by river. Oregon Country was far enough from Washington that it would effectively have been a foreign war for both countries along the coast and rivers; in those circumstances you'd be a fool to bet against the nineteenth century British Navy. A worst case scenario would have meant the Americans losing the entire Oregon Territory, all the way back to what are today the American northern Rockies. The U.S. would certainly not have held the coast, and would not have held the Columbia. (Don't even try to tell me they could have held the Fraser.) As a result the northern Rockies could well have become an international boundary, just like the Andes on the other American continent. Yellowstone would have been on a hostile tripartite border.

Also keep in mind that, in actual history, the U.S. was scheduled to fight Mexico the following year, gaining such familiar territories as California and Texas. With a military demoralized and battered by the British, and likely a new administration elected that was far less interested in expansion, it's hard to argue we would have started the Mexican War when we did, or at the very least had fewer gains. Our border with Mexico after the earlier Florida purchase was the Arkansas River, which cuts through Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, so substantial chunks of the southwestern Midwest would also not have been gained. It's also less much less likely under these circumstances that the Alaska purchase would have occurred; it almost didn't as it was. Sadly New Kamchatka would not have been able to produce beloved governors and Vice Presidential nominees for the far-away American capital. Consequently, Going to war over 54'50" could very likely have meant the U.S. lost its entire Pacific Coast. Worst case scenario map below, with international boundaries darkened and changed sub-national territories named.

In alternative histories, the best-known rendering of a U.S.-Canadian war was in Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series, where in 1914 the Confederacy allies with England and the Allies, and the North comes in with Germany and the Central powers. The Central powers win, the U.S. pushes the U.K. completely out of Canada, and sets up an independent Quebec as a client state.

As an aside, my favorite part of the War Plan Red article: "The best practicable route to Vancouver is via Route 99." I hope no one got paid for that. That's not war planning, that's buying a map at a gas station. Or being a Seattle commuter.

Previous entry:
The alternate vs. actual history test

Next entry: Lewis and Clark vs. the Sabretooth

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Alternate vs Actual History Test: Which Really Happened (Alternative History #2)

Previous entry in the alternate history series: Homo Erectus Never Went Extinct

Next entry in the alternate history series: 54'40" Was Fought

No Googling now. If you don't know, guess which of these really happened, THEN click through. No mousing over to look where the links go either, smart guy. In chronological order of when they occurred or would have occurred:

- The U.S. military investigated LSD as a potential chemical warfare agent in the 1960s - but the first intentional use of biological or chemical warfare was in the seventh century B.C., when the Assyrians deliberately poisoned wells with ergot, a fungus which produces LSD-like compounds.

- A lost phalanx of Alexander the Great entered China and crushed the Qin outpost they encountered

- People living along the Mediterranean in ancient Greek times travelled to central Africa and had a hostile skirmish with pygmies controlling an oasis in the Sahara

- A purge of Buddhists from the Imperial Court in Japan

- The Moorish conquest of a Swiss village

- A Norse Kingdom in Sicily

- An Islamic khanate in Siberia which included Uralic-speaking subjects? (i.e. related to Finnish and Estonian)

- A Tibetan Buddhist republic in recent European Russia

- A Tokugawa naval expedition to Mexico

- Sacagawea's son moved to Europe as a young man with his German prince buddy, touring Europe and North Africa

- A United States of Central America

- Monterey, California "accidentally" taken over by American naval forces when it was still part of Mexico, several years before any war broke out, then given back

- A civil war between Mormons and the rest of the U.S., when Mormons considered everything out to California to be part of the state of Deseret

- A Scottish Colony in Panama

- U.S. and Germany fighting each other after being drawn into the Samoan Civil War on opposite sides

- A serious twentieth century effort to overthrow the U.S. government funded by major corporations, which resulted in criminal prosections

Did you click through? Here's a hint: only one of these was made up. The rest are true. The world is strange.

Previous alternate history post: What if Homo erectus still existed today?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Film Quality vs. Profit: Is There Any Connection, and Does Talent Matter?

Bottom line: film studios are profit-making entities. Film quality as assessed by critics does not seem to closely correlate with profits. So do studios care about quality, and if so, why? To what extent do directors and actors affect critical evaluation and profit, and how is such an effect mediated? At times the film industry behaves inconsistently and seems to make decisions in terms of things other than profit. There are clear analogies to be made with the sports business, in terms of apparent paradoxes that can be resolved by being reminded that profit and winning games are not the same thing.

An article on Slate contains a Rotten Tomatoes-based gadget that tracks the performance, as measured by critical reception, of directors and actors over the last 25 years. (This choice of metric is important. The first question should be more obvious than it is: why should they use critical reception your yardstick? Would studios rather work with a Michael Bay, a director who reliably produces top-selling shiny shoot-em-ups, or a Terry Gilliam, who makes movies which are a tremendous joy to watch, and well-received critically - and which are tremendously expensive and run over budget and schedule? Now you see what I'm getting at. Most industries don't have the opportunity to lose focus on profit after getting confused by the artistic value of their products.) In the same way, a sports franchise with loyal fans can afford to have losing seasons, at least for a while, as long as the team can keep those fans filling seats, glued to TV sets to see commercials, and buying branded jerseys.

Reading through the Slate article about this new career-tracker gadget, you will note that John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) is the "winning" American actor. That is to say, he is the American actor who has made 10 or more films since 1986 whose films' average ratings were rated the highest by critics, at 76.1%. Compare to Chuck Norris, the worst actor, for whom the same statistic 18.4%.

"It's over, Mr. Anderson...I mean Prime." You'll get it in a second.

This might seem strange because Chuck Norris would seem to have more name recognition than John Ratzenberger, and (at a guess) I bet commands a higher quote. Also interesting is that in terms of total gross of films-appeared-in, the top actor in the United States is - wait for it - Frank Welker! You know, Frank Welker, the original voice of Megatron? In 2006 he passed Samuel L. Jackson with a career gross of US$4.9 billion. Of course in the U.S. we don't regard seiyuu as a separate career, as they do in Japan.

Why Would Studios, or Directors, or Actors Care About Ratings?

If you assume that critical ratings (i.e. quality) and profits are the same thing, then even the few statistics above present a real puzzle. Of course if commercial culture has taught is anything, it's that the just-stated assumption is a very false one, hence the existence of movies like Star Crash and Transmorphers (see point #3 here), which have little delusion about themselves as art but are safe bets as business propositions. At the very least there is likely to be a diminishing return on profits by improving critical perception of quality; a dollar you spend on a movie budget to raise it from just-okay to not bad might bring back more sales than a dollar that raises it from pretty good to critically stellar. Even if the critics care enough to spend a dollar more, the broader film-consuming public might not. As in sports, the film industry's product has a cultural value separate from its sales value, and because the cultural value is more salient to the public, film consumers confuse the two - just as sports consumers are puzzled about bowls and college ratings. But the film industry usually has its head screwed on straight and is focused on the real prize; they're (presumably) composed of materially self-interested agents and is not confused by this. Right?

Not necessarily. On its face the film industry would seem to be maximizing something besides profit, at least some of the time. Assuming Frank Welker's career-film-gross indicates a real contribution to films, and because as a voice actor you could probably get him to work for less than a big screen actor, then it would seem to be a no-brainer to keep using Welker in the Transformers franchise - as opposed to, say, Hugo Weaving, who will undoubtedly cost more and cut into the bottom line. But they still went with Weaving. (Now you get the little joke in the caption above.) What's the justification in cases like this? Did Weaving really want the part, and got his agent to call in a big favor to the studio to get him? Is the studio afraid of looking cheap by keeping the old-series voice actor, and signaling financial weakness to the rest of the industry? Did they actually project how many more tickets and rentals they would get from people who liked the Matrix, to prove that he would pay for himself? Or is it even less rational than that, and people at the studio and film crew just insist on having more prestigious people to associate with (like Weaving) and they're effectively willing to trade away profits to bask in his company? I have nothing against Weaving or his performance in Transformers, but decisions like these are curious from a financial standpoint, and they raise question about what's really being maximized.

Smart, i.e. rationally self-interested studios that win best picture would always auction these off, or melt them down for scrap. Imagine the rational, curmudgeonly studio exec. "Who cares if the academy liked it. I just want to make sure winning this thing doesn't hurt sales."

Going further, you wonder why a studio ever bothers at all with trying to get good critical reception. Yes, the Pixar movies that Ratzenberger is in have done well financially and tend to be highly rated by critics, but Chuck Norris's movies have been financially successful - but only financially successful. If you can sell tickets when Roger Ebert is bashing you, who cares? It's reasonable to think there's some negative impact on sales if the media hates you, but it would be interesting to see the actual relationship. How to measure? Movies are made for different amounts and intended to bring in different amounts; so perhaps compare on one hand each film's profits as a percentage of the film's budget, versus its Rotten Tomatoes average on the other. Either there will be some relationship between the two - or there will be none, or it will be too noisy to care about the correlation. If there's not a clear relationship between critical opinion and sales (or there's one that's grossly non-linear) it's worth asking what the value of the critics is, to the industry and to the public. To make sure we know what their film school wants us to like?

Frank Welker's take-earned-by-films-I've-been-in statistic raises another question. What's the average per film, and more crucially, to what degree was that Welker's influence? There's probably an 82 year-old key grip somewhere with a spreadsheet showing how his own takes are higher than Welker's. But even if you're looking at the average takes as opposed to absolute, what do you compare to? We don't know how much the movie would have made had X been in it instead of Y, and doing an average % take relative to budget wouldn't give us a comparison. That is, even if Welker has a good average %, how do we know that's higher than what the movies would have made otherwise? What counterpart would we use? (Even if we solved that, this is only correlation; the actor might just pick good-selling movies, as opposed to making them good-selling.) If there are measurable effects, do actors or directors on average have more impact on quality and/or take? Analogously, analyze NBA teams, and you'll find that on average their records from year to year are more closely related to who's coaching than who's playing; when I did this, I didn't investigate whether this is from recruiting skill or on-the-court coaching.

Finally, and I have no proposal for how to measure this, even if there are measurable effects from a certain actor appearing in the film, what mediates that? Is the public going because they think they'll get a good performance, or do they just like the actor because they're familiar with him or her? The fact that studios are willing to pay a premium for well-known actors instead of just using unknowns that can act just as well as the people who had a break (which comprise a large portion of the LA population) suggests that the studios believe familiarity is at least part of the effect.

Of course we might assume big studios investing tens or hundreds of millions in projects aren't stupid; they're businesses looking for an ROI, and they must already doing something like these analyses. Then again that assumes that their decision-making process is profit-maximizing, when the choice of actors as discussed above strongly suggests otherwise (status signaling? ego-stroking by association with celebrities vs. unknown actors? quality, among LA's artistic idealists?)

Depressed by how all description of how much the creation of art is dictated by eonomic considerations? Then move to a much less capital-intensive endeavor with smaller teams, like writing. One person risking only their solo time at a keyboard can and does usually produce more innovation.

In conclusion: I'm not the curmudgeon about the value of film quality that you might assume from this post. In fact I'm a huge Darren Aronofsky fan and I'm very much looking forward to his next film Human Nature, which will star George Clooney. But with The Fountain (easily my favorite film of the last decade) Aronofsky came perilously close to Gilliam territory in terms of his production stopping and starting again. I'm glad that he's able to keep making high-quality films but I recognize that he's no doubt compromising what would have been an even better film, all the time, for business purposes. But the mystery remains about why studios care to invest in films like his at all. Whatever un-focused fuzzy calculations distract them from profit for long enough to fund projects like this, I'm glad.

Find the Rotten Tomatoes career-tracker here.