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.)