Thursday, July 31, 2008

How I spent my day...

Talking about the Dark Knight with some other hard-core obsessives here.

We've begun plotting the next movie...

I love the smell of napalm in the morning

This is an excellent smackdown of this almost entirely incoherent protest letter.

For background, a bunch of professors wrote to protest the establishment (or at least the official U of Chicago participation in) the Milton Friedman institute. This is because, displaying their love for intellectual openness and diversity, they feel Milton Friedman is the devil and his ideas should be banned forever. I exaggerate. Somewhat.

At any rate, this John Cochrane fellow, who is apparently also on the faculty of U of Chicago but despite that apparently feels that being a scholar should entail clarity of writing and thought, not just signing on to the cause-du-jour, however inane, incoherent or counter to prior causes-du-jour, has written a response to the protest letter.

It is excellent and gives me hope for our future. The fact that he is one man and the signatories of the original document were legion, however, crushes that hope like the jaws of a child finishing off a gob-stopper.

(Got to this particular smackdown through the excellent Marginal Revolutions blog here)

Who wears short-shorts?

Article in the NYTimes this morning about the rise of shorts in male formal wear.

This is interesting for a few reasons. 1) Outside of, maybe, very fashionable gay men, I don't think any man will start wearing this look. 2) The only exception to 1) is, maybe, people who enjoy looking like 8-year old boys dressed up for Sunday school (this could be known as the 'Pee Wee Herman' look)

3) is a little more involved.

The article goes on to discuss the rise of "showing some skin" in men's fashion more generally. The concept is that men have spent all this time in the gym getting these perfect, perfect bodies and they want to show them off. So what examples do they give us? A professional hockey player who is also a self-described fashion maeven; David Beckham, who I suppose could still be called a professional athlete, but is really more like a model at this point; and Anderson Cooper, who is clearly a celebrity and, though he may be a fine, fine newsman, is obviously in a business in which being attractive matters enormously.

So why is this interesting? Because at one point the elite males were not necessarily the most attractive people. The selecting simply wasn't being done on looks or muscle-tone or even upright-posture. No, the selection had to do with bloodlines and political skill and, perhaps, military ability. So you ended up with the European nobility, many of whom were just shivering piles of regressive genes that couldn't pass for a male model if they devoted themselves to nothing else.

But these were the elite. So these were the people spending time and money at clothiers. So fashion developed to try and make normal-bodied people look good, or at least as good as they could. This is actually the goal behind most of traditional male formal wear. You'll notice that it all looks pretty much the same: don't stand out, because if you're not an adonis, standing out will not be to your benefit. Also, have some padded shoulders to give your sloped, world-weary frame the impression of vigorous masculinity. Keep every thing in simple lines to hopefully distract from the decidely un-simple lines of your paunchy, crap body.

But now-a-days we have entire industries made up of the prettiest. We have entire elites (Hollywood, pro-athletes, news anchors, to a slightly-lesser-but-rising-all-the-time extent politicians) who are largely selected on the basis of physical perfection. These people do not need fashion to hide their faults, they want fashion to showcase their perfection. Thus more skin, tighter, etc., etc.

I should add that women's fashion went through much the same process, only earlier. Go back to the staid victorian fashions with their corsets and bustles and the like and notice that they too are designed to make any woman look at least passably attractive. But a mini-skirt and a tank-top really is not attractive on everyone, despite what the unattractive might fool themselves into thinking.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Revised and Extended: The Dark Knight

Because I'm all OCD like that, I've been devouring the Wikipedia and various blog-posts I've come across about The Dark Knight.

I enjoyed the film tremendously. Enough so that I might even see it in the theater again, though preferably I-Maxed this time.

However, after extensive reading, some of the criticisms do seem to have merit. Not so much merit that I'm rethinking my love of the movie but still...

This post has some interesting discussion in the comments about some perceived plot-holes. I don't think most of the plot holes he identifies are actual plot holes (as I said in a comment posted there) but I do think that there are some plot holes in the movie. The most notable (SPOILER WARNING) is what happens in the party at Wayne's penthouse after Batman and Rachel go out the window. Basically, we just skip merrily along to the next scene and are left, I suppose, to gather that the Joker after getting Batman to jump out the window just gave up on finding Harvey Dent at the party. Doesn't seem likely.

Here's a review from a guy who didn't like the movie, despite (or perhaps *because* of) having thought there was a lot of potential in a followup to Batman Begins. He raises some good criticisms but ultimately my response to movies relies much less on the sort of conscious evaluation of themes and mechanics that he is using here and much more on visceral reaction to the film. So the fact that Heath Ledger was amazing (which everyone but my two closest male friends in NYC seems to agree was the case) and that Aaron Eckhart blew away my expectations of his ability to play his role in the movie left me a v. happy camper. That and the fact that I have, perhaps, a better memory for movie lines than the average camper, so the relative non-memorability of the "one-liners" in this movie didn't really phase me: I liked it so I remember them.

That and the action bits were awesome. Which is not nothing when looking for summer entertainment...

But mostly, how can you not love this guy?

No, no, applause to you Mr. J...

(PS, I got to all of the various links in this post from this post on Ross Douthat's blog. )

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bridge to Nowhere Senator Indicted

They better be careful where they put him; he might try to escape through that series of tubes...

Next Up: Books

So having finished one book, what will I be reading next? I've got a stack of books to pick from but I'm thinking it'll likely be "Basic Economics" by Tom Sowell at home (it's a big hardcover, too large for rush-hour subway reading) and either "Rain and Other South Sea Stories" by Somerset Maugham or possibly "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein for the train.

Basic Economics lays out economic principles with real-world examples. So far (chapter 4) I'm finding it to be an excellent source of easy-to-relate economic explanations. The comment on "greed" and prices from earlier was inspired by the book.

Rain, etc. is a book of Maugham's short stories. I've been on something of a Maugham kick recently, after being reminded of how amazing his fictionalized life of Gauguin, "The Moon and Sixpence" was. (Seriously, read that book immediately, it's amazing.) I recently read his fictionalized biography of himself, "Of Human Bondage", which was decent, though not as good as the Moon and Sixpence.

"Time Enough for Love" is the latest on my Heinlein kick. It's science-fiction, so if you're the type to dismiss that out of hand, skip over the rest of this paragraph. I've recently read "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", which is about a libertarian revolution on the moon, and "Starship Troopers", which is a heavily, heavily militarized tale about a war with aliens. But mostly it's about military culture and life.

I've also got a paperback copy of Joseph Schumpeter's "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy" which is one of the Great Books of economics that I always wish I'd read but I don't think I could take it for the train while reading econ at home as well. Maybe after I finish Basic Economics it'll become my train book.

There are a bunch more on my "unread" stack, but those are the ones that are in the warm-up circle, so to speak.

Book Report: Brutal

So I've decided to start doing book reports again, because, honestly, was there a better assignment back in those halcyon days of elementary school? There was not.

The latest book I read was Brutal:The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger's Irish Mob by Kevin Weeks.

Let me just say that the title "Brutal" is a good example of truth in advertising. These guys were not nice fellows. There is much fighting. Much killing. Much burying of bodies. Much extortion, drug-deals, car-chases, back-stabbing (often preemptive, sometimes literal).

There are some interesting tidbits. The opening chapter is about growing up in a poor Irish family in Southie. He paints it as quite the decent place to grow up and asks us not to blame it for his and Whitey's descent into criminality. Interestingly, Weeks had 2 brothers who went to Harvard and claims that he, too, might have been Harvard-bound, if he could only have stopped getting in fist-fights with... everybody.

He might even be right. Clearly, he and Whitey had a special kind of gift for criminality, which is why they were so successful at it, but it might have just been a general gift that they applied to criminality because it suited their temperaments. Their brothers were clearly successful (for those of you who don't know, Whitey Bulger's brother was President both of UMass and the Mass. State Senate), so it's not crazy to assume they would have done well at whatever they set themselves to.

Throughout the book, in fact, he talks about how he and Whitey would often ponder over how much more money they might be making if they were putting the kind of effort they put into criminal enterprise into legit enterprise. While counter intuitive, that's probably right. Criminal enterprise carries a premium because of the risk of getting killed or jailed or beaten or whatever. If you are putting the kind of effort into it that these guys were -- that is the kind of effort that keeps you alive, out-of-jail, and relatively healthy -- the premium is probably not fully compensating you for the extra effort.

Other interesting bits were some advice for the aspiring criminal. For example, Whitey was apparently quite fond of using darkness and the weather to help conceal his activities when possible. At night, in the rain, there are fewer people out, meaning fewer potential witnesses. Also, those who are out are carrying umbrellas, generally have their head down, and are in a hurry to get out of the rain, thus less likely to be looking around taking in the scenery. So when planning a hit or a move of guns or money or the ditching of a getaway car, Whitey would wait for bad weather and do it then.

Another helpful tip was what might be called the "walk, don't run" school of getting-away-with-it. This is something I've actually noticed in my own life. When you're trying to escape notice or sneak by someone, so often the temptation is to do it quickly, to run, in other words. This is wrong. The thing to do is to walk normally, as if you totally belong there. This way you blend into the background and are less likely to be noticed or remembered. This comes in handy as they are dumping a body off a pier in one chapter. They walk by some other fishermen on the way out and the fishermen offer to watch their stuff for them. They just say thanks and keep walking. No way the fishermen will even remember talking to them.

At any rate. I came across the book on the NY Times Freakonomics blog here.

It was alright. Though not the best written book I've ever read, the down-to-Earth, first-this-happened-then-this-happened style worked for the subject matter.

I give it two and a half stars. I'll decide out of how many some other time.

Another thing about variance...

That last post rambled on and somewhat lost it's coherence (me? incoherent? never!), but I did want to point out just one more thing about the effects of differing variances.

Last post was all about how having a greater variance in math ability will lead to gender imbalance as you get further from the mean (which we are assuming is equal, as the evidence would suggest that it is), however all the examples we were dealing with were about going above the mean, that is going towards people who are better and better at math.

But for a distribution that is centered on its mean, (which, once again, the normal is) the exact same thing will happen as you go to the left side of the distribution, that is towards people who are worse and worse at math. You will find the ratio of boys bad at math to girls bad at math skewing more and more towards the boys in exactly the same way you do among those hyper-good at math.

Is this observed? It is! What fun. Why do we never hear people complain about the severe gender imbalances in remedial math courses? Equality for women! We need more dumb girls!

(Relatedly, I always think of this whenever I hear too much complaining about gender imbalances in the "good" jobs and how we never hear about how awful it is that men dominate the "bad" jobs like, just off the top of my head: garbage-man, miner, janitor, felon, prisoner, etc., etc. In fact, did you know that there is a similar gap to the "gender wage gap" among the likelihood to die on the job? Men are significantly more likely to die on the job. So, far from employers being biased against women and showing it by conspiring to keep their wages down, they are actually biased against men and are showing it by literally killing them. Sneaky employers!)

Math is hard, so is science journalism...

So the NYTimes reports on a new study that shows no difference in average scores between boys and girls. They open, as one would expect, with the standard laugh at how this just proves once again how stupid, wrong and sexist old Larry Summers (youngest tenured professor in Harvard history, the idiot) was for suggesting that intrinsic aptitude might be at all responsible for the vastly greater percentage of men than women at top math and math-related faculties.

But, of course, Larry wasn't saying that men and women don't have equal average aptitude. His point was that all the studies of the issue show that men and women have equal averages but very unequal variances. The variance is the measure of how "spread-out" a distribution is. For a distribution centered about its mean, like a normal distribution, having a greater variance means that you will have higher and higher percentages the further you get from the mean.

This means when you're looking way, way in the tails (tails is a term used to refer to the far reaches, both left and right, of a distribution) if boys have a greater variance than girls, you will see a higher and higher ratio of boys to girls the further you get in the tails.

To put it in simple terms, if boys and girls have the same average but boys have a greater variance, you will expect to see 50-50 boys/girls at the average. As you start to go above the average, you will start to see that ratio skew towards the boys, say 52/50 at 1 SD (Standard Deviation, a measure of how far you are from the mean, in variance terms) above average (yes, I could do the math to get the actual differences with an implied variance, no I am not going to. Maybe later, if I get bored. BTW, I've never been that bored in my life so don't hold your breath.).

Now when you're talking SDs, the percentage of people you're talking about gets small, fast. About 15% of a population will be above 1SD, that drops to 2% more than 2 SDs above the mean (roughly, here, roughly), and only about 0.1% of a population will lie above 3SDs. (This one is near and dear to my heart for IQ related reasons...)

At 3SDs, or even further, say 4SDs (now you're talking like 1-in-a-million, or, say, like a Harvard math PHD's math ability level) the skew of boys-to-girls will get even more pronounced, if the boys have a higher variance. It might even get all the way to, say 85-to-15, which is the observed ratio.

So how did Larry and all the other studies get it wrong and this one get it right? Simple, this study agrees with Larry and all the others, but tries to play the difference down by suggesting that the variance they observed would account for a 75-25 ratio but only sexism could get it to the observed 85-15. Maybe it's sexism or maybe they're underestimating the variance measurement or maybe they're underestimating how far in the tails math-faculty really are, or maybe there are other attributes whose variance is different between men and women that reinforces the ratio or maybe lots of things.

Point is the nice lady at the NY Times either didn't understand what she was reporting or just decided to lie about what it said because it made a better story to laugh at dumb old Larry again rather than point out yet another study supporting his hypothesis.

Regardless, I'm sure the world will be a better place when we force extremely high-end math faculties to be evenly distributed between men and women. There's no way this will just result in either a) men being forced out as the departments shrink 'til only the number of men that equals the (much smaller) number of interested and capable women are allowed to do it or b) the lowering of standards until there is just no such thing as a capable and qualified math faculty.

After all, that's not at all what happened to college sports when this logic was applied to it... oh wait...

UPDATE: What do you know, I actually got that bored. Also I wanted to put up some pretty pictures to go with this post, so I did.

Here they are, maybe I'll try to work them into the text, though the fact that it was written picture-less somewhat complicates that, so I might not.

At any rate.

Here is a graph showing two normal probability distribution functions. They are both normal, with mean zero. The standard deviation of the "boys" function I have chosen to be 10% higher than the "girls" function. This gives a variance ratio (boys/girls) of 1.21, which is within the parameters seen in the latest study, though I just picked it arbitrarily as an example.

The x-axis is "girl" SDs. As you can see, the girl's graph is taller and skinnier than the boy's graph. This is because, as I said above, the higher variance "spreads out" the graph:

But, as I said, the real fun begins when you get into the tails. That's where the relatively small difference in variance starts to cause some real fun.

Here are two images of the left tail, that is the "bad-at-math" side of the distribution. The first shows the tail from 4 to 2 SDs below the mean and is, in effect, a "zoom-in" of the left part of the above graph. The second shows the same thing, but only 4 to 3 SDs below the mean, this is a zoom-in of the left half of the first zoom-in, if you will.

The thing to note is that while it looked above like the difference was vanishingly small in the tails, this is due mostly to the fact that in the tails you're dealing with such small numbers. When you zoom in, you see that the variance is in fact causing the difference between boys and girls to grow:

Finally, here is a graph showing how many boys versus girls you would expect out of 100 for the entire left half of the probability distribution. As you will be able to see, as you get further into the "worse at math" side of the spectrum, a random group of 100 made up of kids at that level or below gets more and more lopsidely male. At the mean it's 50-50, as expected since they have the same "average" ability, at 4 girl-SDs below the mean (which is the 1-in-10,000 bad at math kid, so the really, really bad at math kid) you're looking at 19 girls to 81 boys on average. Not because of sexism, but because there are more really dumb boys than girls in this model of math-ability.

(Note that, because the normal is symmetric about the mean, the "good-at-math" side of the dist. would display exactly the opposite tendency, that is out of a group of 100 random boys and girls, you would expect more and more boys as you get into "better" math territory and at 4 girl-SDs above the mean you would expect 81 boys to 19 girls. Note that this is the 1-in-10,000 "good-at-math" folk, or, in other words, the population that you are drawing from when selecting professors for the most elite universities.)

Look at me being all socially redeeming and all...

So via this post at Ross Douthat's blog at The Atlantic, I came across this post at the NYTimes Paper Cuts blog (which is, as the subtitle kindly points out, a blog about books). The post is about the insanely high prices you can find for certain not-that-old, not-that-special-seeming used paperbacks on services that allow you to sell used books, Amazon being a primary culprit according to the post.

Because most people are economically illiterate and Times readers are not as different from ordinary people as their egos would suggest, the common thread in the comments immediately seized upon "greed" as the reason for these high observed prices.

So I offered the following comment, in response to the first commenter who had suggested "greed" as the reason for the high prices (and who was, as my theory of economic illiteracy would suggest, the very first commenter):

quisqualis - As a general rule, greed is a tremendously unsatisfactory explanation of any price set in a market, as a moment’s thought will reveal.

While it may well be true that the seller is the very picture of greed, in a free market no one is compelled to buy their product and, in the case at hand, certainly no one is compelled to buy paperback books.

So while that greedy, greedy seller might well set the price at absurd heights and then cackle in delight when thinking of all the marvelous lucre they will get — they will not actually get anything unless someone decides to pay that price.

The person who decides to pay the price may well feel that it is too high, but in actually paying the price they clearly feel that the benefit they will get from the purchase exceeds even that high price, otherwise they would not buy it.

This is the crux of free-market transactions. Both parties must feel that the transaction adds to their well-being in some way or they would not pay it.

Personally, I do not like coffee and feel that at even a nickle a cup it is way, way overpriced, so I am shocked to see people shelling out 100 times that every day at Starbucks. But to the Starbucks shopper, the coffee (and perhaps the experience or whatever else makes up a part of the transaction from their standpoint) is worth more to them than the $5. From Starbuck’s point of view, the $5 is worth more than the coffee. So the coffee is sold for what to me seems an unreasonable price and both parties are better off.

Even if they are both greedy. In fact, BECAUSE, they are both greedy. If they didn’t see any benefit to be had from making the transaction, it would not be made.

Thus greed, while no doubt present in alarming amounts among most everyone, is not a good explanation for prices that we feel are outrageous.

— Posted by blighter

I thought that my habit of occassionally dropping comments on the odd blog here or there was totally unredeeming. After all, as the old saw has it: "Arguing on the Internet is like running in the special Olympics: even if you win, it's still retarded."

But low and behold, look what a later commenter dropped on the blog:

Appreciated ‘Blighter’s’ economic analysis (greed/ well-being) I had never thought of it quite in those terms but it sounds right. However one occasionally sees irrational prices that dealers are asking, sometimes 100 times the market value. I guess the explanation here is mania, delusion and temporary insanity. However one cannot help feel that it is initially provoked by greed. How do you explain the dealer who wants $9000 for a signed edition of 1000 of Galsworthy’s Plays, available at less than $100 all over the web? It has been for sale for 4 years to my knowledge.
— Posted by Laker

If I have helped even one person finally realize that free market transactions require both parties to be better off to become actual transactions, I have done the world a service. Even if they cling to their stupid love of "greed" as an explanation for other prices they feel are absurd.

So I think this counts as my good deed for the day week month.

Monday, July 28, 2008

good, good

A brief note to the creators, whoever you are, of the most annoying currently airing ad: the Wendy's ad for their warm chicken salad. The ad's main copy is as follows:

"If warm chicken tastes good... and cold, crunchy veggies taste good... wouldn't a warm chicken, cold, crunchy salad taste good good?"

The answer, in case anyone is so completely illiterate as to not know, is "Of course not, you blithering idiot." Adjectives in English are not increased in intensity by repetition. In fact, this is exactly the kind of linguistic habit that parents try to break small children of.

Thanks so much for simultaneously striking a blow against good grammar while polluting my favorite television shows with more vapid adverts for empty calories. The fact that you're advertising a salad does not make up for the assault on our language.

I sometimes wish I believed in hell so I could have the satisfaction of wishing it on the sorts of people who create these kinds of things. Alas, alas.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Leopard 1, Crocodile 0

Mammal pride, y'all!

Public Notice

Please be advised that the recent film "The Dark Knight" was very good and just plain fantastic for a super-hero film. If you are going to express contrary opinions, please consider the effect this will have on any listener's opinion of your intelligence and taste and preferably only express them in the solitude of your closet, at night, alone.

Please do not express them at work, in the cube next to mine.

Good grief, these are different chuckleheads than the cultural illiterates I heard bad-mouthing "There Will Be Blood" but, honestly, what kind of people do I work with here?

Back for the first time...

Due to popular (and salty) demand, this blog will no longer be on hiatus for the immediate future.

We apologize for any inconvenience this might render.

The Management.