Monday, January 31, 2011


A dear old friend sent us one of those emails, marked up in 5 colors, of outrages some nutso judge claims to have found in the healthcare law. He cites, but does not quote, the relevant passages. Because I no longer have the patience, I don't bother to track down the reality.

Because I'm too nice a guy, I didn't reply: "Dear X. Suggest you stop smoking crack and listening to Glenn Beck. It's rotting your brain."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dostoyevsky Takes an Axe to Nietsche and Consequentualism

I saw an impressive theatrical version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment tonight. I'm not sure how the adapters managed to cram the sprawling novel into 90 minutes, but they did, and to excellent effect. This is a story with some important intellectual weight, and Raskalnikov does as much damage to Nietsche and Consequentialism as he does to the hapless murder victims.

Experts Unstrung

String theorists are very smart. We know this because: (a) you need to know a lot of physics and even more math to understand string theory (and Math is Hard! - Barbie) and (b) because they keep telling us so.

Because people (Ok, their moms and other string theorists, anyway) have always told them they are so smart, some string theorists have found it convenient to set themselves up as experts in all sorts of stuff - climate change, for example. And volcanology.

CNN at least is convinced. Lubos finds CNN interviewing Michio Kaku, string theorist and science popularizer, about the Yellowstone supervolcano (more Yellowstone here and here). Not that I blame Michio. If Rebecca Hillman or other hot Anchorette wants to interview me, I'm available. I can talk about anything, including superstrings, the Superbowl or volcanology - and I even experienced the last big Yellowstone quake.

Actual volcanologist Erik Klementi was not amused. I guess he wanted to be interviewed. Or maybe he thought Kaku was being a little facile and misleading - the sort of thing you can get away with when you are as smart as a string theorist.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What's The Matter With Kids Today?

I was having dinner with some of my contemporaries - that is to say a bunch of other old geezers and geezerettes - not so long ago, and the conversation turned to the manifold intellectual deficiencies of today's students. It started with the film prof complaining that his students didn't know who Gregory Peck or understand the old Hollywood studio system. What little I understand of the "old Hollywood Studio system" was probably embedded Sunset Boulevard - the Lloyd Webber version - but I didn't want to dwell on that. Others complained that most students couldn't write a decent essay - true dat - and so on.

I couldn't resist stirring the pot, so I had to ask how many of us knew who Ke\$ha was? I also wondered how our insights compared with the fact that IQs seem to keep rising, and the fact that the current generation is not only a lot smarter than us, but is even a lot smarter than we were before we became senile.

I've never been one of the popular kids - I wonder why.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Tyler Cowen and other semi-conservative economists are flogging the notion that the unemployed are unemployed because they aren't worth their keep - that they aren't being hired because they can't produce enough value for it to be worthwhile for an employer to hire them. Economically speaking, they can produce only zero marginal product.

The advent of the automobile caused the transportation value of the horse to drop below the value of the cost of maintaining him, so a lot of formerly useful horses earned a ticket to the glue factory. Is that the designated fate of the American unemployed, metaphorically anyway?

Paul Krugman and other Keynesians maintain that the actual problem is insufficient aggregate demand - there just aren't enough people willing and able to buy stuff. At one level, both explanations are almost tautologically true. Given large enough demand, everyone would be hired. If employers were convinced the hiring someone would produce a profit for them, hire they would. The point is that these aren't clearly distinguishable factors. High unemployment drives down demand because the unemployed have no money and the employed are afraid to spend for fear of losing their jobs. The complementary effect is that hiring someone to produce something isn't going to happen if there is no one willing to buy it.

What has happened in the US is that a lot of jobs have gone away but total sales have not declined that much. Partly this is because the things we buy are being produced elsewhere, but partly it's because productivity gains have made it possible for fewer people to produce more.

So what are the alternatives, short of the glue factory? Here are a few things I've heard.

(1) A massive federal jobs/stimulus program to increase aggregate demand - at the cost of piling up a lot more debt.

(2) Drastically restructure taxes and other regulation to stimulate hiring

(3) (2) above and take actions to greatly facilitate business formation, making it very simple for anyone who wants to start a business to do so.

(4) Have the US, like China and Germany, adopt an industrial policy to encourage manufacture in the US and exports.

(5) Restructure our education, employment, and welfare programs to get everybody sellable skills.

(6) Hunker down and hope the problem goes away.

Needless to say, (1) will not happen and 2-5 are improbable. So it looks like (6) it will be.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

More To Chua On

Amy Chua has got to be the most successful self-promoter since Glenn Beck emerged from the ass-cheeks of Zeus - or wherever it was he came from. It's somewhat interesting to wonder how she managed to push so many people's buttons. I think she manages to play on common fears - the fear of every parent that they aren't doing right by their kids and the fear that China is surpassing and threatening the US, for example. She also manages to make herself at once threatening and unlikeable - she's judgemental, anti-American, racist, hypercompetitive, and impossibly full of herself.

Janet Maslin of the NYT weighs in:

“There are all these new books out there portraying Asian mothers as scheming, callous, overdriven people indifferent to their kids’ true interests,” Amy Chua writes. She ought to know, because hers is the big one: “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” a diabolically well-packaged, highly readable screed ostensibly about the art of obsessive parenting. In truth, Ms. Chua’s memoir is about one little narcissist’s book-length search for happiness. And for all its quotable outbursts from Mama Grisly (the nickname was inevitable), it will gratify the same people who made a hit out of the granola-hearted “Eat, Pray, Love.”


Maslin likes banging the narcissism gong, and it's a fairly plausible charge:

Wherever she is in this slickly well-shaped story, Ms. Chua never fails to make herself its center of attention. When her older daughter, Sophia, was a baby, “she basically slept, ate and watched me have writer’s block until she was a year old.” (The italics here are mine.) “Sophia,” she later explains, “you’re just like I was in my family.” When she pitches what’s already become her most notorious fit over the girls’ amateurishly made birthday cards, Ms. Chua declares, “I spend half my salary on stupid sticker and eraser party favors” for their birthdays, adding “I deserve better than this.” And when Jed fails to honor Ms. Chua’s birthday with reservations at a good enough restaurant, and the family ends up at a so-so one, he too is in hot water.

Chua also gets some space of her own for another blurb and excerpt in the NYT.

Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.

This brings me to my final point. Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother. This is so wrong. Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.

The last paragraph perfectly illustrates her peculiarly narrow focus and obtuseness to intellectual generalization. I find the American sports parent a nearly exact analog to Chua Chinese mother. Does she understand the meaning of the word "analog?"

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Feed Your Head

Paul Krugman takes us back to Grace Slick in the sixties as preparation for tomorrow's column.

I was never a doper of any sort - unless you count beer, but this song definitely made a big impression on me when I was a young soldier. Somehow the ambiance transcended both it's mileau and it's own message. Ditto for Hair - it feels like the anthem of my generation even though I was never of it.

From Wikipedia:

Slick and Tricia Nixon, former President Richard Nixon's daughter, are alumnae of Finch College. Grace was invited to a tea party for the alumnae at the White House in 1969. She invited the political activist Abbie Hoffman to be her escort and planned to spike President Richard Nixon's tea with 600 micrograms of LSD. The plan was thwarted when they were prevented from entering after being recognized by White House security personnel, as Slick had been placed on an FBI blacklist.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mother of the Year

Amy Chua is the mother from hell, and proud of it - or at any rate she has a book to sell. Excerpt from her WSJ article:

A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids. They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it. Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

.• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.

The tactics used to enforce this discipline were somewhat drastic, including insults, threats, starvation, and putting the children out in the cold - most the of things pimps use to control their stables, short of forcible rape anyway - or perhaps I exaggerate - but how hard is it to torture a seven year old into submission, anyway. This style of parenting makes just as severe demands on the parent as on the child - hours and hours of attention to every aspect of their child's life. All worth it says, Chua, because when they succeeded they got praise and "love" - pimps know that trick too.

Chua is a Yale Law professor, as is her husband. He isn't Chinese though, and it doesn't seem like he is fully onboard the education-by-torture bandwagon, but is evidently too weak or uninvolved to effectively protest.

Her article has attracted quite a pushback, from child development experts to other styles of mothers, to Chinese mothers with other styles, to victims of Chinese mothers. Plenty of other, mostly Chinese or other Oriental mothers, take her side.

Alice Wang, writing in the Yale Daily News, isn't one of them, and thinks that products of Chua's Confucian style education are suited only to be mid-level bureaucrats. Meanwhile, Chinese education officials interupted their celebration of Shanghai's triumph over the world in educational testing to worry that their system crushed initiative and creativity.

Christine Lu tells the sadder story of her older sister, raised in the same kind of Chinese home who went from triumph to triumph to suicide at age 30. Lu adds:

As a responsibility to herself as a "superior Chinese mother", I think Amy Chua should do a bit of research outside her comfort zone and help readers understand why Asian-American females have one of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S. -- I bet many of you didn't know that. I didn't until after the fact. It'd make a good follow up book to this one she's currently profiting from.

Chua is now reportedly taking a softer line, and claiming the WSJ did her in - I guess by choosing the headline "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" though it seems to me that she still wrote the article. Lu seems to think it all helps promote the book.

Chua claims that her children are happy, creative, and independent, and they like her. It certainly could be true.

Many say that it's obvious that she loves her children, and I see no reason to doubt it. Some kinds of love are pretty toxic though. I keep remembering the reformed dog fight promoter who said how much he loved his fighting dogs.

I will give her one point, though. I think its ultimately better for parents to be involved in their children's education than not - even, sometimes, way too involved.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Republicans are not likely to cooperate with Obama on much, but he might have one offer they might find hard to refuse. How about an initiative to remove obstacles to entrepreneurship? My guess is that a lot of Americans might start businesses if there weren't so many such obstacles. Here are a few, and my ideas for fixes:

1)Taxes. There are a bewildering complexity of taxes on businesses of every size, and their complexity imposes special difficulties on the small business. Solution: replace all taxes on small businesses with the easiest tax to administer: a value added tax (VAT). In particular, this would mean that all payroll taxes would be eliminated. Their revenue would be replaced by the VAT.

2)Many would be business starters are discouraged by the fact that quitting their jobs at Megacorp would cost them their health insurance. Replace employer based health insurance by a government administered basic health insurance plan (kids + catastrophic + limited extras) plus income based vouchers for other insurance.

3)Simplify regulatory complexity for all businesses except those posing major hazards.

There are doubtless many other ways to do this, but keep the focus on encouraging business formation. A small company's largest expense should not be its accountant.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Defending Sarah

Whatever she thinks others may have claimed, I have no reason to believe that Sarah Palin kills Christian babies in order use their blood to make Passover matzohs.

I have every reason to believe that she continues to be a contemptible and brainless twit.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Blaming Sarah

There is a school of American political press hacquettry in which the ability to see both sides of every issue is prized far above truth and logic - call it the "opinions differ on the shape of the Earth" school. Howard Kurtz, a charter member, opines today that we really need to resist the temptation to think that the assassinations in Arizona might have something to do with militarized "bullets or ballots" rhetoric being pushed by the right-wing media and many politicians. We know the rest - gunman was deranged, his politics were muddled, blah, blah, blah.

Kurtz throws in this:

Let's be honest: Journalists often use military terminology in describing campaigns. We talk about the air war, the bombshells, targeting politicians, knocking them off, candidates returning fire or being out of ammunition. So we shouldn't act shocked when politicians do the same thing. Obviously, Palin should have used dots or asterisks on her map. But does anyone seriously believe she was trying to incite violence?

Wrong question Howard! I don't think drunk drivers are trying to kill people - but they do, by wantonly and recklessly attempting to drive when they aren't capable. Sarah was trying to fire up her troops, and she recklessly and wantonly used a violent metaphor - Giffords in a rifle scope sight - to do it. None of the journalistic metaphors mentioned - stupid though they may be - has the same kind of threat of personal violence.

The fact that militaristic metaphors have a history in the US isn't much comfort either - the US also has a history of political assassination and attempted assassination that is a real blight on our republic.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Bloody Footprints

The assassin who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a dozen other people today will doubtless be portrayed as a lone wacko, but I predict that the bloody footprints will lead back to the imams of Fox News and purveyors of political hate on right-wing talk radio. Sarah Palin's website has reputedly just taken down the bullseye they had painted on Congresswoman Gifford's district - but let's not forget who stirred up this and other recent incidents of terrorism.

If, as I expect, the murderer was inspired in whole or in part by professional hate mongers, they should be treated just like other terrorists.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall reminds us of the huge role the Tea Party has played in the "assassinate your local Congressperson" movement:

Arizona has been ground zero for the guns and threats agitation from the right over the last two years. And as an example of the atmosphere in the state of late, back this summer her Tea Party opponent Jesse Kelly held a "Target for Victory" fundraiser in which contributors could help "remove" Giffords from office by "shoot[ing] a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.

UPDATE 2: Andrew Sullivan seems to have the most comprehensive coverage that I have seen.

UPDATE 3: Alleged Assassin Jared Lee Loughner does look like a space case - not that that's a surprise. Not sure yet whether that refutes my prediction.

UPDATE 4: Via Andrew Sullivan -

Her father Spencer Giffords, 75, was rushing to the hospital when asked if his 40-year-old daughter had any enemies. "Yeah," he told The New York Post. "The whole tea party."

UPDATE 5: The right is trying to portray Loudner as a "leftist," mainly on the testimony of one high school friend (see, e.g., Atlas Shrugs - sorry, I won't give it a link) and because he liked the Communist Manifesto. His exact politics are probably pretty eccentric, since his favorite reading list also includes authors Hitler, Ayn Rand, Homer, and James Barrie. Some of his rhetoric echoes Ron Paul & friends. These points are mostly irrelevant though. Those stirring the pot, talking about taking back the government at gunpoint, and painting bullseyes on Congresspersons are all right wingers. These are the people with the inflamatory rhetoric and they are at least indirectly responsible.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Irrational Expectations

Once more into the breach: another statistics problem from The Burg:

Suppose you’ve somehow found yourself in a game of Russian Roulette. Russian roulette is not, perhaps, the most rational of games to be playing in the first place, so let’s suppose you’ve been forced to play.

Question 1: At the moment, there are two bullets in the six-shooter pointed at your head. How much would you pay to remove both bullets and play with an empty chamber?

Question 2: At the moment, there are four bullets in the six-shooter. How much would you pay to remove one of them and play with a half-full chamber?

The hardest part of this kind of problem is figuring exactly how to frame it. Suppose, for example, that objective here is to maximize your lifetime, and that your expected lifetime, should you survive the game, is a function of your remaining wealth W, say f(W).

For question 1, then, without the payoff, your expected future lifetime becomes:

L = (1/3)*0 + (2/3)*f(W) = (2/3)*f(W), and

L = f(W-P) with the payoff, so P is a good bet so long as f(W-P) > (2/3)*f(W).

For question 2, the numbers become

L = (2/3)*0 + (1/3)*f(W) = f(W)/3 with no payoff, and

L = (1/2)*0 + (1/2)*f(W-P) with payoff, so once again the payoff is a good bet so long as f(W-P) > (2/3)*f(W).

So are the situations completely equivalent? That conclusion (which is Landsburg’s, though he got there in a different fashion) is hasty. It’s entirely possible that L is more complicated than our assumption indicates. Below I give two versions of the problem which include some semi-realistic context and lead to different conclusions for the two cases.

Let’s take one more look. Usually Russian Roulette is a betting game, so there should be some sort of payoff if you win, e.g. survive.

Assume that you bet all your wealth that you don’t invest in the payoff, where the bet is B and the value of a win is N*(Prd)*B, where N is some natural number (1, 2, etc) and Prd is your probability of dying in the game. Now case 1 looks like this.

L = (1/3)*0 + (2/3)*f(W+N*Prd*B) = (2/3)*f(W +N*B/3) for the no payoff case

L = f(W-P) with payoff and the payoff is worthwhile for f(W-P) > (2/3)*f(W + N*B/3), or for f(W) = W, W-P > 2W/3 + 2N*B/9 => 9W-9P>6W +2W or W/9>P

[UPDATE: Oops. I screwed this next one up. Below is a fixed up version with a different conclusion]

L(no payoff) = (2/3)*0 + (1/3)(W+(2/3)W) = 5W/9

L(payoff) = (1/2)*0 + (1/2)(W-P+(W-P)/2) = 3(W-P)/4

For case 2, the payoff criterion becomes 3(W-P)/4 > 5W/9, or 27W-27P > 20 W so the standard is 7W/27 > P. Note that this means you should pay substantially more to remove the one bullet from the four bullet gun compared to case 1.

Even if you don’t have any investment in the game, there are still situations in which the optimal payoff is different for the two cases.

Suppose, for example, that in addition to the probability that a bullet will kill you, there is an additional probability that you will be scared to death (heart attack, stroke, etc.) by the experience of pulling the trigger of a loaded gun pointed at your head, and that that probability is, say, p*Prd. Recalculating, we get for case #1:

L = (1/3)*0 + (p/3)*0 + (1-p/3)*(2/3)*f(W) = (2*(3-p)/9)*f(W) no payoff and

L= f(W-P) with payoff, so breakeven for payoff is at (6-2p)*f(W)/9

For case #2:

L = (2/3)*0 + (2p/3)*0 + (1/3)*((3-2p)/3)*f(W) no payoff and

L = (1/2)*((2-p)/2)*f(W-P) with payoff.

If, for example, we assume f(W) = L, and that p = 0.1, then the breakeven point for case 1 comes at P = .355 W and for case 2 at P = .345 W, so it really is worth a slightly higher payoff in case 1.

The moral of this story: beware of economists peddling rational expectations. They just might not be capturing all the relevant complexities.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Boys and Girls Together...

I asked The Statistical Mechanic (AKA Wolfgang) for his opinion on the subject of the Landsburg-Motl Gotterdammerung. I hope he won't mind my quoting most of his post on the subject here:

If E() denotes expectation values, then E(x/y) is in general not E(x)/E(y). If x is the number of girls and y enumerates the boys then we have pretty much described the whole debate about this puzzle already.
Furthermore, notice that E(x/y) is in many cases not well defined and the sum or (in general) the integral Int[ dx dy (x/y) p(x) p(y) ] will not necessarily equal 1 even if p is normalized and does vanish around zero values of x, y.

Asymmetric Warfare

I visited the sites of the revolutionary war battles of Lexington and Concord this summer, and was reminded of the old joke about the great game master arranging the terms of the war:

OK, you Brits will wear red, march in close formation, and use short range guns.

Americans, you wear camouflage, hide behind trees, and use long range rifles.

Ready, set, go!

So why don't the guerrillas usually win? Because it was discovered long ago that there is another side to the asymmetry. The more powerful force uses its superior firepower to destroy the means of sustenance of the population in which the guerrillas live. Thus Sherman broke the back of Southern resistance in the American Civil War by creating a swath of destruction across the South.

Collective punishment is a war crime, but war is always collective punishment.

Meanwhile, the world puts up with terrorism mainly sponsored by weak countries. A vast armada is deployed in a mainly futile effort to suppress piracy based in Somalia, but a tithe of that force could utterly crush the Somali pirate bases. If pirates originate in a village, destroy it and every boat near it. If many villages support piracy, destroy every boat and port in the country.

There is a tragic downside, of course. For every pirate destroyed, many innocent fishermen would lose their lives of livelihoods.

Somalia is a nuisance to the world, but Afghanistan is a bleeding wound for the US. We continue to lose American soldiers to an enemy largely based in a country that is nominally our ally. In Vietnam we found that the most massive bombing campaign in history was not enough to deter a determined enemy based in the North. It seems far less likely that the targeted assassination of a few enemies by UAV is going to prove a greater deterent.

I wish we had a Congress, Republican, Democratic, or Tea, that would bring the issue of Afghanistan up for debate. What's our goal there, and how to propose to get to it? Anybody who uses the word momentum in an answer should be summarily impeached.