Monday, November 30, 2009

Tipping Point

The Economist explains why blockbusters get better ratings than niche products:

Although you might expect people who seek out obscure products to derive more pleasure from their discoveries than those who simply trudge off to see the occasional blockbuster, the opposite is true. ... blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do. ...

A disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type.  A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read "The Lost Symbol", by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

... As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.

I've seen connoisseurs of all kinds of things complain about how the masses uncritically accept whatever is popular, but I'd never seen a systematic explanation of why that would usually be the case. 

It is clear that, in order to make a big hit, you have to make something that everyone will like a little, rather than something that some people like a lot.  Hollywood, with its business model of pandering to the masses and then driving things with marketing, has known this for years.

Monday, November 23, 2009

'Self Knowledge' Review Part 2

Earlier, I talked about a hundred-year-old sex education book that I got at a yard sale.  This is a continuation of that review.  I will now discuss how he got the science of heredity wrong.

We now know that all genetic information is unchanged by anything that happens in the life of the organism*.  Changes in a species come through mutation and natural selection.  If the carriers of a gene have more fertile offspring, then the gene will become more common.  No individual can do anything to change the genes that he or she will pass onto the next generation.  Good heredity, or eugenics, means finding a mate with the best genes.

But 100 years ago, this was not common knowledge.  Many people had a Lararckian idea of inheritance.  They thought that things that happened in an individual's life were commonly passed on to offspring.  This belief was often mystical.  The author believed that children would inherit most of the physical, mental, and moral attributes of their parents.

His working definition of 'heredity', which is never stated in the book, is 'anything that happens to a child before the child is old enough to make decisions'.  His definition of 'eugenics' is 'anything that improves heredity'.  This is a much broader definition than the 'selective breeding' definition that we use.  He talks about eugenics as something that couples can start to do even after they get married, and gives advice on what to do.

Here are some of the things that he puts in the category of 'eugenics':
1) Making sure that the father has not been using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs for a good length of time before conception
2) Making sure that the couple does not have sex unless they would welcome a child
3) Giving the mother good food and a healthy environment during pregnancy
4) Ensuring that the infant receives proper love, care, and attention

Basically, anything that we would call prenatal care or early childhood care is included in his definitions of heredity and eugenics.  And the book is full of good advice that matches modern research.

He got the mechanism wrong.  We now know that the developing minds of children are heavily influenced by the environment in early life.  A good home environment will generally produce good kids, while a bad environment will put the child at a huge disadvantage.  Kids, even ones too young to talk, can tell when they are not wanted, and that knowledge can destroy them.

But he knew nothing about the cognitive abilities of infants.  He saw the connection between the behavior of parents and later success in life, and assumed that the mechanism was either mystical or biological.  He thought that he was being scientific, but without a good understanding of causality and basic facts, most of what he said ended up being folk wisdom and superstition.

Sometimes folk wisdom is confirmed by scientific research.  Sometimes it is not.  While much of what he said was good and useful, some of it was bizarre, wrong, and possibly dangerous.  I will cover that in a later review.  It is always useful to read something like this with a modern eye.  By spotting his mistakes and seeing where they came from, you are less likely to believe similar semi-scientific stuff produced by modern writers.

You do see hints that he was moving beyond the culture of the time.  When discussing heredity, he made a passing mention of Jews, mentioning how they cared about good heredity.  The implication was that they were a superior race of people.  This was in a culture of chronic antisemitism.

Jews do have, on average, IQ's of about 5 points above average.  I don't want to digress into a discussion of IQ as a valid measuring instrument, but it is correlated with success in life, and it is influenced both by genes and early childhood development.

And here I stumble across one of the most politically incorrect themes in science.  It is almost impossible to have an intelligent conversation about human biodiversity.  Liberals hate admitting that one group of people might better or worse than average in any way, and conservatives hate admitting that genetics might have a big impact on how people act, and their success in life.

The facts show that people are different for a variety of reasons, some of them genetic.  The mind is affected by natural selection just like any other part of the body, and different groups of people have lived in very different environments.  It shouldn't be too hard to talk about these differences, while still holding firm to a belief that all humans are valuable and deserve basic human rights and an equal chance to succeed.

But it is hard, and one of the reasons it is hard is because eugenics and talk of racial differences has a very bad connotation.  People have used it as an excuse to commit some very nasty crimes.  I'll mention that in a later review of this book.

* There are a few transgenerational epigenetic effects, but these don't seem to have much impact on heredity.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Financial Literacy Fail

One of the questions on this week's homework in my Econ class was:

Your uncle repays a $100 loan from Tenth National Bank by writing a $100 check from his TNB checking account. Use T-accounts to show the effect of this transaction on your uncle and TNB. Has your uncle's wealth changed? Explain.

A disturbingly large number of the students said that the uncle's wealth goes down by $100.  Even the A students seemed to think that paying off a loan makes you poorer.  This is truly frightening.  We have a generation of people who do not seem to understand that a loan is negative wealth.  When I mentioned it to my office mate, he replied that this is a symptom of a flawed education system, and I agree.

In future classes, I will probably spend more time on basic financial literacy.  I designed my curriculum this semester to focus on public policy issues and help the students be informed voters.  But it is probably more important for them and the country as a whole to make sure that they understand basic facts about money.  Teaching this stuff is not technically the purpose of the course, and I shouldn't have to do it, but if I don't do it, then nobody will.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How People Really Make Decisions

Most people seem to live their lives according to the the following rule set:

1) Do whatever the happiest-looking people around you are doing.  If that makes you happy, keep doing it.  If not, proceed to Step 2.
2) Do something else at random. If that makes you happy, keep doing it.  If not, return to Step 1.

Note that this process will usually end up producing a situation where it appears as if everyone has carefully examined all of the possible options and chosen the one that makes them happiest.  So even though the 'utility-maximizer' model of economic agents has nothing to do with how people think, it is a good first approximation of the world in most situations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Violence and Sexual Coercion

As a result of discussion in yesterday's workshop, I ended up coming across this survey of Sexual Coercion among University Students in the United States and Sweden.  It is not an economic study, but it still brings up some useful data and is worth discussing.

They surveyed college students in each country, when meant, bluntly, that they were sampling rich White kids in each place.  So we can assume that the demographics are roughly identical, and that we are measuring cultural differences among people of similar socioeconomic status.  Surveys are notoriously unreliable, which is why economists don't like using them, but let's just assume that the unreliability is the same in both places and the differences are real.

The survey shows that, in the United States, about 50% of males and 70% of females report that they had been subjected to nonphysical coercion (constant arguments, lying, intoxication) to engage in sexual activities.  In Sweden, the numbers were about 20% for males and 40% for females.  Basically, Swedes of both genders are 30% less likely to be the victim of sexual pressure, and women in each country are 20% more likely to be the victims.

The survey really should have asked if people did these things, and how many people they did them to.  That way we would know if the increased victimization rates were the result of more people doing these things, or of the perpetrators doing them to more people. But the following analysis holds in either case:

Economic theory says that people will use a tool if the benefits are higher then the costs.  If a tool is used more often, it could be because the costs are lower, or because the benefits are higher.  Given that there are no legal sanctions for nonviolent coercion in relationships, the costs of using coercion are either psychic or social.  Either you feel bad about doing it, or word of your actions gets out and leads to ostracism.  The benefit of this behavior is, presumably, a higher chance of having sex.  Even if the costs were exactly the same among two different groups of people, you would see differences in the activity if one group places a greater value on sex, or if these actions were more effective at obtaining sex.

So we have four theories that might explain the observed differences:

1) Swedes feel worse about using coercion.
2) Swedes are more likely to socially punish people who use coercion.
3) Americans desire sex more.
4) Americans are more willing to give in to pressure to have sex.

Their survey cannot tell us which of these four theories is correct, but a properly designed survey could.  You could test theory 1 by asking people how they felt about their actions.  You could test theory 2 by asking how they would respond to a friend who used these tactics.  You could test theory 3 by asking people about their level of sexual desire.  You could test theory 4 by asking about how people respond to pressure.

But they don't do this.  They just speculate and say that 'more research is needed' without making any useful suggestions for how to do that research.  They seem to be working mainly in the framework of Theory 1, talking about how socialization and education make people less willing to use coercion and force.  Theories 3 and 4 are not mentioned at all.

There is actually a fifth theory that could explain the results.  Sexual coercion is only used when one partner wants sex and the other does not.  So the differences could come entirely from sorting mechanisms.  To see what I mean, imagine two societies with identical people and identical costs and benefits of sexual coercion.  In each society, half the men and women want sex, and half do not.  In one society, people openly announce their sexual desire and use that to choose partners.  In this case, all the men and women who want sex pair up with each other, as do the nonsexual ones.  There is no sexual coercion in any relationship.  In the second society, people do not announce their sexual desire and partner assignment is random.  In this case, 25% of the relationships will be between two sexual people, 25% between two nonsexual people, and 50% of the relationships will have one person who desires sex and one who does not.  In this society, we will observe much more sexual coercion, even though the people are identical. 

The survey also uncovers interesting data about physical violence.  In the US, approximately 28% of men and 35% of women report using physical violence ( throwing things, roughly shoving, hitting) against their partners.  In Sweden, the numbers are about 15% for men and 25% for women.  So Swedes of both genders are about 10% less likely to initiate violence, and women in each country are 10% more likely then men to initiate violence against their partners.

So it seems at first glance, that women are more likely to use physical violence and men are more likely to use nonviolent coercion.  But the question about nonviolent coercion only related to sex.  They should have also asked how likely people were to use nonviolent coercion for nonsexual reasons.  That way we could separate the type of coercion used from the desire for sex.  They do ask how often men use physical violence to obtain some kind of sexual contact, and the number is about 16% for US men and 4% for Swedish men.  Women almost never use physical force to obtain sexual contact, even though they seem more likely to use physical force in other contexts.

This all shows why scientists must be guided by theory and must be very careful about the questions they ask.  This survey tells us very little about the differences between men and women, or why Sweden is different than the USA.  The only thing it really tells us is that Sweden is a much better place to be in a relationship or to go out on a date.  But without knowing exactly why, we really don't have a useful guide to making things better here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Celebrity Chef School Lunch

The Financial Times reports that a British chef (Jamie Oliver, or 'The Naked Chef') accidentally created a random experiment in school lunches.  One school system implemented his recommendations for healthier school lunches, and other similar ones did not.  Preliminary results are that the new food reduced absences and increased test scores.  In other words, healthy foods had an immediate and significant positive effect on school outcomes.

The columnist makes another important point.  We need to be running more experiments like this:

Obviously that discovery is important in its own right. Jamie Oliver was correct to emphasise the importance of feeding schoolchildren good food. But the whole episode matters for another reason. Too often, critical scrutiny of what works and what doesn't in our society has been replaced by a pure emotional response. ...
Surely what counts is that a new idea was tried out on a respectable scale, and now we have a chance to figure out whether it worked. What astonishes me is that it took a television company and a celebrity chef to carry out a proper policy experiment.

But really, we already knew that healthy food is good for you.  The big question, that any responsible parent has dealt with, is: "How do you get kids in the habit of eating healthy when we are surrounded by a culture of obesity?"  When they are really young, you can easily control the menu by fiat, but when they get to the preteen years you have to instill some self-control.  A perfectly healthy school menu does nothing if the kids ignore it and smuggle in junk for lunch.

It seems to me that the best way would be to constantly tell them that unhealthy foods are childish, and that healthy foods are the mark of grown-ups, and that anyone who insists on eating unhealthy stuff is a baby.  That would work especially well on that age group: "If you want to be treated like an adult, then you should eat like an adult."

But that strategy only works of parents do not eat junk.  Kids are the ultimate hypocrisy detectors.   They copy what we actually do, not what we say.

Freedom of Expression

The CATO institute recently published a good article showing that the pain of seeing people do things that offend you is not a good reason to impose any controls on of free speech.  It argues that it is dangerous to pass any laws that prevent things like flag burning.

This is a good snarky quote, showing how flag burning might actually be good for people who love the flag:

Venerators' revenge may take many lawful forms, not the least of which is simply the satisfaction (profound at times) of thinking that the  desecrator is a twit, and of feeling oneself morally superior to him.

I definitely agree that the Republican party's perennial attempts to introduce a 'flag burning amendment' is wrong and dangerous.  It would set a horribly bad precedent of attacking our basic First Amendment rights, the ones that have been so important in keeping our society free and healthy.

I also think that the stance is politically damaging for them.  All intelligent social conservatives know that the Constitution is far more sacred than the flag, and so should be treated with more respect.  The Republicans are showing their willingness to mess with our founding document for the sake of political expedience.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Ignorant Reporting

The New York Times fails basic economics.  They ran an article talking about cell phone prices and saying that nobody understand them.  But the market structure of cell phone pricing is actually quite easy to understand.

I guess it isn't all their fault.  They interviewed an 'economist' at Yale who obviously forgot or never learned basic price theory.  If they had asked anyone in our econ department, they would have gotten a good explanation of the pricing system:

There are different people, with different demands for mobile phone minutes.  Some people want to talk a lot, and others only want to talk a little.  If a phone company offers a flat rate price to everyone, they will have to charge a price that is too high for the people with low demand, while being too generous to the ones with high demand.

The way to solve this is with two-tier pricing.  You set up two or more different plans.  For each plan, you charge an 'entrance fee' that has a certain bundle of minutes, and then charge a per-minute fee if those free minutes are used up.  The people who talk the least choose the plan with the lowest entrance fee.  They will never use up their minutes, so they don't care how high the per-minute prices are.  That high cost is only there to keep the chatterboxes out of the cheap plans and force them into the expensive plans.

The math gets complicated, but you can prove that this method gives you more revenue than a simpler price system.  It also lets you serve more people, because you have figured out how to get money from the people who don't use phones much, without giving anything away to the talkers.  The article mentions, in passing, that Americans pay the least amount of money on average for their phone calls.  This is because of our system of 'complicated' plans, which allows the companies to get more users into the system and make the best use of the network.

There are several other points where the article fails basic econ or finance:

The article claims that the new iPhone price of $199 now and signing a contract to pay $30 a month for two years costs more than the old plan of $399 now and $20 a month.  But this calculation ignores the interest rate.  Money spent two years from now is cheaper than money spent today.  I did a quick calculation and found that, at an interest rate of 18% a year, the net present value of the two plans is almost identical.  This may seem like a high rate, but it is lower than what credit card companies charge.  If you put that $399 on your credit card, then the old plan would cost you much more money than the new plan.  So it was perfectly rational for consumers to be willing to buy more phones at the new plan.*

The author thinks it is odd that offering a discount makes people switch to more expensive plans.  But that isn't odd.  The basic reaction to a price cut is to buy more of the thing.  When a company does something to lower your bill, you have more money to spend, so you choose to upgrade the plan and talk more.

*From an economics standpoint, there is nothing irrational about using credit cards and paying high interest rates.  It just means that you value consumption today a lot more than you value consumption tomorrow.  You have a high 'discount rate'.  When economist say people are rational, they are saying that people will find the most efficient way to get what they want.  We never assume that what they want is 'rational' in the sense of being what a wise or intelligent person would choose to do.  A 'rational economic agent' might have a cocaine habit.  But he or she will try to get that cocaine for the best possible price.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Threats from the State

They say that 'politics makes strange bedfellows' but sometimes I am amazed that different groups do not find common cause and work together.  For example, there are right-wing libertarians that distrust or even hate government, and mutter darkly about growing government power and its ability to hurt ordinary citizens.  But they never seem to provide concrete examples of such government abuse.  When they discuss their fears, their arguments often seem vague and mostly ideological.

And then there are the left-wingers who constantly bring up real examples of government abuse, such as the execution of an innocent man in Texas and the detention and rendition of an innocent man in the Washington airport.  They do an excellent job of showing the horrible violations of liberty that our government has perpetrated, but never seem to make the logical connection that big government inherently leads to these kinds of things.  They seem to think that government would be fine if we fixed a few things.

Both groups rightly complain that the apathy and ignorance of ordinary citizens allows and even encourages the government to get away with harming people and perverting justice.  But they never seem to find common cause.  I'm not sure why.  It may be ideology, or simply a failure of communication.  The kinds of people who read right-wing gun-nut blogs might not even be aware of the kinds of things uncovered by the Innocence Project, and the kinds of people who protest police treatment of minorities might not even be aware of the philosophical arguments for limiting the power of the state.

That's all I feel like writing today.  If you are not aware of how ignorant police arson investigators condemned an innocent man, read the story in the first link.  I may come back to the topic later, as it relates to what I keep saying about the scientific method.

It is an excellent example of why you should always question self-proclaimed authorities, and of the consistent fallacies of human reasoning and memory.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nuclear Disarmament

Fun fact of the day: ten percent of all electricity in the United States is made from the recycled fissile material from disarmed nuclear weapons.

Given that our university is powered by a nuclear reactor, there is a 45 percent chance that the electricity powering my computer right now came from a Soviet nuclear weapon, and a five percent chance it came from an American one.

This makes me feel good about life.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Science Lesson: Parenting Style Study

A BBC article discussing a study of parenting was a part of my standard morning blog and news feed*.  The article said that a 'tough love' parenting style, combining warmth and discipline, was linked to positive character traits such as self-regulation and empathy.  I was intrigued by the study on parental style and life outcomes it talked about, so I decided to take some time to dig deeper.

It took a little bit of searching to find the article they were referencing.  This, by the way, is one reason why bloggers are superior to the old-school journalists who just don't understand how to operate in the Internet age.  No self-respecting blogger would ever talk about a research study without providing a convenient link to it. 

Note: What follows may seem like a long ramble, but I think it is a useful running commentary of how scientists analyze things.

After I opened the report, the first thing I did was look for an abstract.  I didn't find one, so I started reading the introduction.  But after a few sentences of pointless babble and overblown prose, I realized that it would be a waste of my time.  So I jumped straight to the technical appendix and started analyzing the methods of the study and the raw results.

The first thing I noted was that the outcome variable of the survey was a behavior analysis of the children at age five.  The text of the BBC article alluded to this but did not make it explicit.  The first sentence, however, was wrong.  It said "Children brought up according to "tough love" principles are more successful in life, according to a study."  But the study did not actually tell us anything about success in life.  It simply connected parenting style to childhood character traits that are believed to lead to later success in life.

The second thing that jumped out was that the outcome variables were not based on independent observation.  They were based on a survey of the parents.  So in the end all the survey can actually proves is that there is a connection between how parents treat their kids and how they view their kids' behavior. This could be a potentially fatal flaw, but to their credit the authors acknowledged it as a weakness.  That admission of weakness, by the way, is a strong signal of good science.

Their statistical treatment of income seemed odd to me.  Instead of listing it as a continuous variable, which would have told us useful things about the effects of increasing wealth, they only used it to isolate the poorest 20% and put them in a different category.  All they can say about income is the differences between that category and the rest.  Their treatment of the data prevents them from saying anything useful about income effects in the upper 80% of the sample.  This method seems primitive to an economist, and raises suspicions of data mining, but it may be the standard way of doing things in sociology.

I like the way they split parenting style into two dimensions: rule enforcement and attachment.  'Tough love' parents, the ones that produce the best outcomes, are those who combine high attachment and high rule enforcement.  They are both warm and controlling.  Second place is 'laissez-faire' parents are warm and permissive.  Third place are 'authoritarian' parents who are hostile and controlling.  The worse results come from 'disengaged' parents who are hostile and permissive.

But they only asked two questions for the 'rule enforcement' scale, and each one only had three possible responses.  This means there are only six possible values for a key independent variable.  That is probably too coarse of a scale to capture the effects well.  I am fairly sure that the state of the art in social science surveys is to ask for responses on a seven-point scale from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree' and make scales from at least four of five questions each.

At this point, I had to refer back to the text of the paper to see details of the childhood character traits they were measuring.  One thing that I noticed is that five of the ten of the measures of 'empathy and attachment' are, at least partially, measures of what other people are doing to the child.  If a child is bullied or rejected by other children, that child is listed as having low empathy.  So a child will score poorly on the outcome scale if he or she suffers from discrimination that is not his or her fault.  Given how vicious and tribal little kids can be, and how easily they absorb prejudices from their parents, I do not belive this is a fair assessment.  If this survey is taken in a society that has any discrimination at all, it will imply that minority parents do worse at raising well-adjusted children.

There is a similar, but smaller, problem with the 'self-regulation' scale.  If a child has any medical problems that lower quality of life, he or she will be listed as having worse self-regulation because of the way the questions are written.

But, despite these problems, these scales are probably still good at predicting life outcomes.  People who score low on these measures will probably have more troubles in life, even if those troubles are not their fault.  So the scales are accurate as predictors, but it would be wrong to assign moral weight to them, or to say that a parent whose child scores badly has dome a bad job.

But the biggest flaw in that paper is that it simply shows correlation, not causation.  It is not a controlled experiment.  It might be the case that both parental style and child behavior are determined by genetics, or something in the environment.  It is less likely, but still possible, that intrinsic attributes in the child cause parents to react differently.  The only way to really test these effects would be to randomly tell caregivers to have more or less attachment and rule enforcement for different children.  This is both impossible and unethical. 

But it might be possible to find some kind of 'natural experiment' that causes variation.  Studying adoptive parents would be a good start.  The closest you could get to a controlled experiment would be to send identical twins to two different sets of adoptive parents, who live in equally good neighborhoods and have the same amount of money and status, and who are equally competent, but have different philosophies about raising children.  Then you could be very confident that any differences were caused by parenting styles.  But doing that, or finding children that match those conditions, would be really hard, so we do what we can.

It may seem strange to say this after I have criticized the study so much, but it is a good piece of research.  Yes, they made mistakes, but science is a messy process, especially when combined with surveys and political initiatives.  The core of the paper is good, and it makes a useful contribution to human knowledge.  It tells us things about the link between child-rearing actions of parents and perceptions of attributes that impact future life success.  It allows us to replace hazy anecdotes and folk wisdom with real data.

The key result from the paper, which is probably true even with all of my caveats, is that the most important thing to do for children is to love them.  Attachment is key.  After that, it is important to have clear rules and enforce them consistently.

Some people might read my blog post and say 'I already knew all that.  I don't need some fancy scientist to tell me what any good grandmother knows about kids.'  And it is true that many people already do know these things.  But many people don't.  Some would argue that being authoritarian is best.  This study suggests that they are wrong. 

Even if it seems silly, you have to use science to test conventional wisdom.  Often, the conventional wisdom is wrong.  And when different groups of people have different sets of conventional wisdom, only science can tell who is right.

Another important lesson from this is that scientific knowledge is often indefinite and probabilistic, and should often be interpreted narrowly.  This study does not deliver certainty.  The knowledge it presents is a somewhat muddled link between what parents do and how they see their kid's behavior at age five.  But that narrowness gives it strength.  Its flaws could be identified, and fixed by a better survey.  More data will come in about the life outcomes of the children.  We will improve our knowledge.  This survey, flawed though it is, will still be useful as a data point in 100 years.

By contrast, people who 'just know' things about the world will claim to have all the answers and be very certain about their knowledge.  They might write books offering sweeping claims without any proof.  But the whole thing falls apart under pressure.  They don't have any good reasons for believing things.  Their 'knowledge' is often nothing more than superstition, or the current fashion of the culture they are in.  In a generation, it will all look hopelessly outdated, and will be revealed to be worthless.

It is always useful to read claims about the world made long ago.  They tend to look amazingly primitive and stupid.  But it is important to remember that people believed them.  Often the people who write them had doctorate degrees, and everyone believed that their words were the words of 'science'.

People are often admonished: 'Don't accept anything without proof.'  But this statement is useless.  People almost always think that they have good proofs for everything they believe.  The key is to learn what is and is not proof.  The words of a scientist, or any other authority figure, are not proof.  The fact that lots of people believe something is not proof.  The fact that people have done something for hundreds of years and it seems to work is not proof.  Proof can only come from carefully analyzing the results of a controlled experiment, or something we observe that is a lot like a controlled experiment.

* I basically make up my own custom online newspaper by combining dozens of different news sources and commentators.

White Hat Hacker

This is a perfect example of a 'White Hat' hacker, someone who uses hacking skills to warn people about security vulnerabilities and hopefully prevent future hacks.  He wrote a program that spreads automatically among iPhones and simply changes the wallpaper.  This virus causes no damage, but raises awareness and will hopefully make people realize that their phones are not secure.  It is kind of like a vaccine, a weakened virus that activates the body's immune system and prevents future infections.

The virus only works if you have deliberately removed Apple's security protection, and added an extra program, and failed to change the default password.  Computer people know that this is stupid, but no matter how much advice or warnings you give people, they will not respond unless you give them a dramatic example.

Computer manufacturers really should change the practice of assigning default passwords.  There are so many things that exploit them.  Each computer or device should be shipped with a unique password that is printed in the manual.  It wouldn't be that hard, and it would have the added benefit of forcing people to read the manual.

Friday, November 6, 2009

IQ versus Rationality

This is a good article on IQ and rationality.  It has an excellent analogy that I have not seen before:

"IQ indicates a greater capacity for complex cognition for problems new to you. But what we apply that capability to is another question. Think of our minds as searchlights. IQ measures the brightness of the searchlight, but where we point it also matters. Some people don't point their searchlights at the other side of the case much, for many reasons - entrenched ideas, avoidance of what might be disturbing, simple haste. A higher wattage searchlight in itself is no protection against such follies."

So basically, how well you can think (IQ) is not nearly as important as what you choose to think about (rationality).  If you cannot learn to escape cognitive biases and analyze life properly, a high IQ won't do much good.

The good news is that it is fairly easy to learn about and defeat these cognitive biases.  The article mentions several.  The main thing is to get in the habit of questioning your own thoughts and conclusions.  Always ask yourself 'Why am I thinking this?' or 'Why do I believe that?'.  Learn to recognize when you are doing something because of hasty intuition, emotions, authority, or social conformity.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bureaucratic Monster

Intellectuals often think that the world would be better if it was run by scientists.  They think that a body of experts will know better than the people, and that people should be protected from their own choices.  But history repeatedly shows this to be a failure.  For example, consider some highlights of FDA history:

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the FDA brought hundreds of court actions against nutrition manufacturers for making health-related claims for their products. Under threat of law, food manufacturers were even prevented from labeling the fat, cholesterol, or other nutritional content of their food! (Later such labeling was allowed, and with the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 nutrition labeling became mandatory.)

The FDA actively prosecuted vitamin retailers that sold vitamins and other supplements in conjunction with books or pamphlets that extolled their use. … The FDA justified such practices, which many considered to be a violation of the First Amendment, under the theory that literature that was sold near a product was thereby converted into a product label. …

In 1973, the FDA published regulations … High-potency vitamins, by which the FDA meant vitamins sold in dosages as little as twice the federal recommended daily allowance (RDA) … were effectively made illegal by this ruling because they could not be sold without FDA approval, and the FDA would not approve supplements that it considered to be unnecessary. Vitamin manufacturers and consumers fought back, and in response Congress passed the Proxmire Vitamin Mineral Amendment of 1976. …

It is worth pointing out explicitly, although it will come as no surprise to anyone who follows today's health news, that numerous scientific studies have since validated many of the health claims for vitamins and minerals that the FDA had earlier suppressed. The FDA suppression of information concerning vitamin E and heart attacks, for example, may rank alongside its suppression of information concerning aspirin as one of the most deadly regulations of the post–World War II era. …

In 1992, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that women of childbearing age take folic acid supplements. Studies showed that taking folic acid reduced risks of babies suffering neural-tube birth defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida. The FDA immediately announced, however, that it would prosecute any food or vitamin manufacturer that placed the CDC recommendation in its advertising or product labeling.  The public did not learn of the importance of folic acid until Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, … Within only a few years of its ban on publicizing the CDC recommendation, the FDA made a complete turnabout. Since 1998, the agency has required manufacturers to fortify a variety of grain products with folic acid—that which is not prohibited is mandatory!

Economists who study government know why this happens.  The people in these agencies have an incentive to restrict as many things as possible.  If they allow something that hurts somebody, they get blamed, but nobody ever fires them for making good things illegal.

The assumption that government knows better than people is wrong.  Yes, people will sometimes do stupid things when left alone.  But government agencies do things that are just as stupid, and they enforce their stupidity with the power of the state.  People will usually learn from their mistakes and fix their behavior, but it literally takes an act of congress to force a bureaucrat to stop doing something stupid.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

School Integration and Crime

A recent economics paper shows that the court-mandated school desegregation of the 70's reduced the rate of homicides among Black youth by about 25%.  It also shows that the rate of homicides among whites was either unaffected or slightly lowered by the desegregation.

The research looks good.  If it is right, as I assume it is, then it means that tens of thousands of lives were saved by this action.  This is extremely important, and suggests that it was a very good thing even though it didn't do much to improve the academic performance of blacks.

These results are not too surprising when you consider that, in practice, school has more to do with socialization than academic knowledge.  The results suggest that the busing took children out of a bad social environment and put them into a better one, with the result that they both committed fewer crimes and were less likely to be the victim of crimes.  And, contrary to the dire predictions made at the time, the process didn't do any harm to the white community.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lucky When I Want to Be

This is a story I wrote some time ago, slightly revised and updated.  It is one of my better ones:


Lucky When I Want to Be

Marcia Beaumont entered the casino with unmistakable confidence.  Her eyes glittered with intelligence, energy and a joy de vivre that set her apart from the rest of the Vegas crowd.  She was dressed in simple, tasteful clothes, the kind worn by a proud working-class woman of the South.

Thus it was that, in dress and spirit, she was the exact opposite of the typical Vegas casino patrons, with their garishly bright clothes and dull lifeless faces ensnared by the hypnotism of the gambling and the flashing lights.  She was also young, where they were old.  She was in her late twenties, but her good health and alertness made her look slightly younger.

She was not, however, beautiful.  She wore no makeup and apparently made no effort to alter her appearance.  She was a little too tall and bony.  Her face was a bit too strong and angular, and her hands showed the roughness and slight calluses of hard work.  She had dirt and engine oil under her unadorned fingernails.

However, such details as might have caused men to overlook another woman never seemed to matter where Marcia was concerned.  It came as little surprise when she felt the security cameras following her.  She looked up at one of the featureless, opaque black bulbs in the ceiling and flashed a smile at the camera operator.  Let him admire her.  This was her night.

After she had passed the rows of slot machines, her attitude shifted subtly.  She relaxed the focus of her eyes, loosened her body, and began to wander, letting her feet go in a direction of their own choosing.  In this state, she drifted serenely, sacrificing neither grace nor poise, but changing direction occasionally, as if being led around by a gentle host.

After about two minutes of drifting through the casino, she stopped at a roulette wheel.  She straightened herself, blinked once, and looked around, her eyes as sharp and keen as before.  She then put her hand in her purse and began to feel around.  If her Walk had been done properly, she would know.

Marcia smiled as her fingers closed around a small flat circular object.  She pulled it out.  It was a $100 casino chip.  It felt lucky.

"Place your bets."  The roulette wheel was being operated by a brisk, no-nonsense middle-aged man with balding hair.  Marcia idly held her chip between the index and middle fingers of her left hand and let the hand drift over the velvet table.  She unfocused her eyes again, and loosened the muscle tone in her hand.  The chip dropped onto number 27.

As the wheel spun, Marcia watched it with a serene confidence while the rest of the crowd waited in tense anticipation.  When it stopped on 27, her only reaction was a slight smile.  The other patrons cheered for her as the wheel operator slid a pile of chips toward Marcia.

Another, slightly different, camera focused on her.  The man behind the camera waved his supervisor over from the other end of the camera room.

The atmosphere of the camera room was the exact opposite of the atmosphere of the casino floor it watched.  It was dark, dirty, and grim, but also but efficient and businesslike.

The person largely responsible for this was slouched against a wall.  His casino security uniform hung loosely and shabbily around his scrawny form.  He possessed an utterly ageless ugliness.  He could have been a sixteen year old ravaged by heroin, or a sixty year old ravaged by a hard life.  Some people wondered what his function was.  He was too weak to be a bouncer and he never seemed to watch the cameras.  He simply stood around all day, staring into space, his sunken eyes focused on nothing.

There were now four people crowded around the monitor, looking at Marcia and holding a lively discussion.  Phrases like "five in a row now, that's impossible" and "don't see any machines or counters" floated out of the hubbub.

After Marcia's sixth win, The supervisor made his decision.  He looked up from the camera, turned toward the back of the room, and opened his mouth.  But the sunken man spoke first, in a shallow rasping voice that reminded listeners of bronchitis. "Yes, I know.  She is one of mine."

Marcia had just collected the massive pile of chips from her seventh win when she felt a dark presence approach.  She turned around to see the sunken man approach her.  He spoke to her in a voice that suggested he was being as polite as he possibly could be, even though it was something he was not good at.  "We need to talk.  Please come with me."

Marcia had not been prepared for this.  She knew, of course, that she would attract official attention, but she expected it to come in the form of several men who each weighed three times as much as this one.

Marcia straightened her back, drawing herself up to her full 5'11" height and affecting an attitude of regal disdain.  "If you want to talk, we can talk here."  Her voice suggested both that she was willing and able to make a scene and that she knew that the crowd would take her side if that occurred.

The sunken man simply stared at her silently.  It was the sort of silence that made many people uncomfortable, and caused them to start talking to fill up the silence.  But Marcia was made of sterner stuff.  After a few seconds of silence, she simply turned her back toward the sunken man and stepped back toward the table.

"You will look into my eyes."  The sunken man spoke these words with surprising firmness, and with an air if un-opposable finality.  It was almost as if he was simply stating what the future would hold.

Marcia turned back to him, curious about what this little man would say next.  But he did not say anything.  Once she looked down to him disdainfully and met his eyes, he simply stared at her.

But in the mind of Marcia Beaumont, a voice said, "You are not alone."

Marcia had never fainted in her life.  She had never, in fact, lost consciousness by any means other than a natural slumber.  So it was quite disorienting for her when she realized that she had halfway collapsed, and was being supported by a spry old man and his stout wife.  The voice of the sunken man sounded like the echo of an old loudspeaker system.  "It would seem that the excitement and the crowd have gotten to you.  You will collect your chips, come with me, and have a cold glass of orange juice on the house to make you feel better."

Marcia got to her feet unsteadily, her weakened, wobbly knees barely supporting her weight.  She knew that she was too strong to have collapsed for such mundane reasons, and she knew that any kind of mental shock could not have made her collapse.  It was obvious that this person had done something to her.  She decided that she wanted to learn about it this person and his talents.

She smiled to the concerned faces of the crowd and followed the sunken man away, now steady on her feet.  He led her toward a door that opened into a small, tastefully decorated conference room.  A waiter in a tuxedo was leaving as they approached.  He held the door for them, then closed it once they had moved inside.  Inside there were four chairs and a small table with a large glass of orange juice on it.  The orange juice had a coating of shaved ice on top.  Marcia picked up the glass, brought it to her lips, smelled alcohol, and put the glass down.

The sunken man began to speak to Marcia.  "How did you win seven straight roulette spins?"

She looked at him defiantly and disdainfully. "I can be lucky when I want to be."

He looked at her sideways. "Luck of the Irish?"

"That's what my granddad used to say."

"I can not allow you to break the bank.  You should have shown some restraint."

"I was doing good.  I wanted to keep going."

The sunken man sighed, and began to talk softly, as if to himself.  "Winnings always go up by a statistically significant amount whenever there is a full moon.  That is a fairly well known fact, but most people do not understand what it means.  We accept a certain amount of background talent as a cost of doing business, but if we let people get away with too much, we would go bankrupt."

He continued his odd lilting monologue.  Marcia was bored by his stupid self-absorption, but she felt no need to stop him at the moment.  "Why is it that Americans feel the need to go to casinos when they realize that they can do unusual things?  People in other cultures might try to better their life by getting a nice person to fall in love with them, or starting a successful business, but Americans always go for the flashing lights and the quick buck.  It makes me sad, really."

He paused, and looked her in the eyes.  "You are a better person than that, Marcia Beaumont.  You do not need or want the instant cash from a casino.  Las Vegas is not for you.  You want to live a simple, comfortable life surrounded by friends and family."

Marcia knew exactly what he was doing.  He was trying to trick her into leaving without her money.  But she would not be fooled.  She had always been in charge of her own destiny, and that would not stop now.  She smiled to herself and let him keep talking.

"I was once like you.  I came here, thinking I would make some money and then leave.  But money has power, here more than anywhere.  I can never leave now.  You will not be trapped as I was.  You will go out there and you will start to lose.  Not all at once, of course, but you will spend all night having fun and eating free food and drinking free drinks and when you have about a thousand more dollars then when you came in you will decide to call it a night and you will leave.  You will make the choice that I could not, and you will leave this place behind you.  Your winnings will barely cover the cost of this trip, and so you will neither gain nor lose anything and therefore this place will have no power over you.  You will go home and you will be happy."

The sunken man stopped talking.  Marcia saw him for the hollow shell that he was and decided that she would never allow herself to have anything in common with him.  She drank her orange juice and left the conference room and started playing poker with people who she could tell needed money.  When she had $1400 worth of chips, she cashed them in and left the casino.

Marcia Beaumont returned to South Georgia where she lived a long, prosperous, and happy life.

The sunken man stayed in the casino.

Monday, November 2, 2009

WEIRD Societies

It is not often that an academic paper invents an awesome acronym:

"Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies"

The main point of the paper is very important. People in these kinds of societies are different, and it is not right to generalize their traits to all humans:

Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species—frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.

One notable thing from the paper is that, when playing the Ultimatum Game, people in WEIRD societies are far more 'fair' than people in primitive societies. Americans were much more likely to split money evenly than people in other societies. This is not the only study to show that, contrary to what many people claim, being in a free-market society tends to foster a sense of fairness. The authors speculate:

It may be that what behavioral economists have been measuring among undergraduates in such games is a specific set of social norms, culturally evolved for dealing with money and strangers, that have emerged since the origins of agriculture and the rise of complex societies.