Sunday, November 24, 2013

Media Musings

Recently, I rewatched Raiders of the Lost Ark and realized how dated and silly it is. Many flaws that I had never noticed before jumped out at me; as I watched the movie I kept thinking things like "I have personally filmed a better fight scene than this" and "Wait, they did not have rocket propelled grenades in 1936."

But the main thing that annoyed me was the sexist portrayal of Indy's friend Marion. She spends most of the movie whining and being useless, and the way that the story was written so she is always wearing cocktail dresses was nothing more than pointless fan service.

I was thinking "our society has definitely come a long way in the past 30 years". But then I watched Stardust, a 2007 movie of the same genre, and realized that it is even more sexist than the Indy movie.

All of the women in Stardust are either evil witches or easy fantasy girlfriends. None of them have any character at all; they are just cardboard villains for the hero to fight or they fall in love with men for no reason at all while being completely useless. At least Marion managed to machine-gun some Nazis while Indy was getting beaten up by the mechanic, and almost tricked her way out of captivity, but the star girl in Stardust does absolutely nothing interesting or heroic.

Compared to an Indy movie, Stardust and many modern movies like it are a reversion to simplistic and childish fairy tales, complete with the mindless wish-fulfillment and casual sexism of Medieval stories.

I realized that about 60% of all of the TV and movie time I have watched over the past two years was a Joss Whedon production. All of the characters in his works are interesting and real, especially the women. They are real people doing real or heroic things. The women in Stargate SG:1 and Farscape are portrayed almost as well. Those shows plus Whedon works are almost all the TV and movies I have watched in the past two years. This has distorted my perceptions of modern media. I was assuming that most stuff nowadays was similar, but it is not.

There is a media analysis tool known as the Bechdel Test. To pass the test:
  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.
Shockingly few movies can pass this test, and the percentage has not really gone up over time. Learning about it and thinking about it was one of the main things that made me realize how the media and stories that shape our culture seem to systematically exclude women.

It is not hard to pass the Bechdel Test and/or to have strong and competent female characters, as many of my favorite shows demonstrate. You don't have to be a media genius like Whedon to pull it off. Even if you are making a show that is a mindless heroic fantasy adventure, you can just randomly make some of the characters women. This is the approach taken by the Avengers cartoon. All of its female characters are basically just men with a different shape, but at least they are competent and heroic and are not defined by their romantic relationships with the male characters.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Confusing Social Norms

Last week, Tyler Cowen posted a link to the following article, and gave the link the title "Markets in Everything: educate your nanny". It describes people hiring professional chefs to teach their nannies how to cook better food for their children:

> Founded by two veterans of the private-chef world ..., marc&mark teaches nannies of affluent parents how to prepare healthful, organic meals that don't come frozen or under plastic wrap. "Some of these nannies already do the cooking in the family, but they're throwing chicken fingers in the oven, or worse, the microwave — they're doing the bare minimum," Mr. Leandro said.

The article did not really surprise me or cause much reaction in me. My thoughts were a mix of "This is interesting.", "I am glad that more people are learning how to cook good food.", and "It is kind of sad that the average person in our culture is so bad at cooking that this is necessary."

But apparently a lot of people got offended by the article:

"Pundits across the spectrum were enraged this week by a consulting firm that teaches nannies to cook quinoa"

I would never have predicted that people would be upset about this, and I still do not really understand the reaction. A rich couple spends a good chunk of money to teach useful skills to their nanny, and people are reacting as if they had done something morally wrong.

This does not appear to be a case of envy. People do not seem to react as badly to other forms of conspicuous consumption, like living in big fancy houses in the best neighborhoods. I suppose that people are upset about the rich people ordering the nanny around and making her change. They seem to resent the 'abuse of power'.

But this makes no sense to me. The nanny was putting their child's health at risk by feeding the kid junk food. If people clearly do not know what they are doing, then you should teach them how to do things better. The only other alternative is to fire the unskilled person and try to hire someone better, which would be a lot worse for the people who do not know what they are doing.

The articles discussing the reaction to this news seem to assume that it is natural to be upset, and then go on to explain why people should not be upset. I need someone to explain to me exactly why people would get upset about this in the first place.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lego in Asia

I have read two articles recently about the growing success of Lego in Asia. The Lego company is learning that they can make massive amounts of money by convincing Asian tiger moms that Legos will be good for their childrens' intellectual development:

Short overview from The Economist

Longer New Yorker article

I wish them great success in their venture; it will improve the world in many ways if millions of Asian children are allowed to play with Legos rather than being forced into piano lessons.

Learning about this development has had a surprisingly powerful effect on me, and it is interesting to analyze why. First, it is a reminder of how fascinating and interconnected the world is. Who would have guessed 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago, that a Danish toy company would be exporting its expensive and high-end products to millions of Chinese families?

But more importantly, it is a very powerful reminder of how rich and modern Asia has become. When I was growing up and learning about the world, about 20 years ago, I learned that Asia was a vast hive of farms and sweatshops full of people who lived in grinding poverty and an existence that was little better than medieval standards of living. This was mostly accurate.

I knew from an early age that Japan was a relatively rich and modern country, but I also knew that their culture was very different from that of American and European countries. Despite their wealth and prosperity, they were 'not like us' in a lot of important ways. And as other Asian countries got richer, they seemed to jump straight from medieval subsistence farming to Japanese-style computer-obsessed hyper-urbanization, skipping completely the comfortable semi-rural middle-class existence I grew up in. This was mostly accurate.

In short, the idea that any Asian child could have a childhood anything like mine never entered my mind. They all seemed to be either stuck in a miserable farming or sweatshop existence, or they were single children being pushed through a hyper-competitive educational system fanatically intent on memorization and conformity, and spending their free time plugged into electronic devices.

But now they are playing with Legos.

As a result of reading these articles, I am suddenly confronted with the fact that millions of children in former third-world countries will have a childhood a lot like mine: school, after-school academic activities, fun creative playtime, and parents who want them to be successful and well-rounded people. Because we now share a tangible and emotionally salient experience, these children have suddenly become much more real to me.

The amazing advancement of the standard of living in their countries has also become more real to me. A childhood once only available to the richest of the rich will now be the birthright of a substantial fraction of the world.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cargo Cult Crafts

I went to a pumpkin carving party last Saturday with a coworker. It was an interesting experience.

There were a lot of young teenagers and preteens there. Most of them were not carving actual pumpkins. They were carving styrofoam replicas of pumpkins. They were not using anything like a real tool; they were using cheap plastic things sold specifically for the purpose of carving these styrofoam pumpkins. And they were not using these to be creative or inventive; they were copying patterns from pre-printed pieces of paper that they had bought.

This seems wrong to me. It is, on every level, a fake and shallow imitation of what crafts should be, all image and no substance.

The activity seemed designed mainly to consume as much of their time as possible. They were encouraged to transfer the patterns to the pumpkin with little pinpricks, and then slowly saw between these pinpricks, in a process that usually took over an hour. The end result was typically a ragged-looking low-resolution replica of a complicated drawing, much like a bad mimeograph.

I came with an actual pumpkin. I grabbed the biggest kitchen knife I could find, and spent about ten minutes total to take off the top, remove the innards, and hack out a vampire face of my own devising with bold swift stabs.

I liked the result. It was simple and striking. It was also what I think a jack-o-lantern should be. Very few of the patterns being carved were actual faces.

When people realized that I would not be using a pattern, they asked me "Are you carving your own face?". I assumed that they were asking me if I would make the pumpkin a self-portrait, and said no. But they were asking if I would be doing something without using a pattern.

This difference in assumptions reflects the differences in what we consider to be impressive. As they saw me carve, they commented that I was like an artist. I have never gotten such a compliment before.

After I was done carving, I took the guts from my pumpkin, and also the ones that my coworker had brought for her children, separated out the seeds, and roasted them with salt and pepper and olive oil. These were quite popular. They were the only real foods in a sea of candy and junk. In this way, they were much like my carved pumpkin, compared to the styrofoam things.

In my mind, crafts should be about the process of taking raw materials from the world around you and transforming them into something that is useful or creatively yours. I turned a pumpkin into 'my own face' and good food. (I am still turning it into good food. It is in my fridge now, and I have eaten a fourth of it so far. My pumpkin ended up being very thick, with lots of good flesh.)

But the 'craft' of the preteens at the party was just the consumption of a manufactured good. They were just being consumers, not learning how to impose their will and creativity upon reality. As I compare my childhood to the children I saw at the party, I realize how lucky I was to grow up in a time and place and with parents that emphasized a connection to the natural world around me, and how I could interact with it and make things from it.

I understand that there are safety concerns with giving real knives to immature people. But maturity is a function of experience, not age. I definitely remember cutting myself with knives when I was growing up. But I healed, and I learned, and now I can handle blades of all kinds with deftness and confidence.

In the past, I did not understand the complaints about how our society was growing shallow and materialistic. Recently I have become more sympathetic to these arguments. Many of the young people I see seem programmed to be consumers rather than creators, and often do not even know what real creativity is. This 'pumpkin' carving party is an example of how the real things of previous generations are being replaced with fake replicas that do not generate the same benefits, and this concerns me.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Important Information, Important Caveat

"between 210,000 and 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital for care suffer some type of preventable harm that contributes to their death"

Harm from medical care is a very big problem. Many hospitals are amazingly incompetent, failing to institute basic care guidelines that would save a lot of lives. If you have any choice about what hospital to go to, try to find information about the medical accident rate there. This will be difficult; hospitals always try to hide any information that could be used to judge their quality.

In general, medical care is both more dangerous and less effective than most people think. This new study is evidence that going to a hospital is more dangerous than we thought it was.

However, it does not mean that they 'kill' over 200,000 people. It does not even mean that all of those people would be alive today if they had done everything perfectly. It means that those people died, and somewhere in their medical records was a mistake that could have been bad. The number of people actually killed by these mistakes is likely to be a small percentage of the 210,000 to 440,000 guess. Even then, many of the mistakes were ones of omission, where the doctors missed something they should have caught. In such cases, staying away from medical care would clearly not have saved the life of the victim.

When making medical decisions for yourself or your loved ones, you need to compare two probabilities: the probability that getting medical care will harm you, and the probability that not getting any care will harm you. Many of the people who died from preventable medical errors may have died sooner if they never got any care.

But still, if you do not really need advanced medical care, it is usually wise to stay away from hospitals.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Whack Rant

I just started reading 'A Whack on the Side of the Head'. I had read that it was very good, so I borrowed it from a friend when I had the chance recently. But when I got to page 19, I became so disgusted with the author that I yelled "You Idiot!" at him and threw the book down in disgust.

What follows will be a rant. If it is like my previous rants, it will be heartfelt, entertaining, persuasive, compelling, and quite possibly wrong. You have been warned. But the rant was in my head, growing and taking form from the moment I threw the book down, and I have to let it out.

Here is the text that set me off, somewhat edited:

"To be more creative, all we need to do is "look at the same thing as everyone else", and then "think something different". Humans have been using their imaginations this way since the beginning.
The first person to look at bacterial mold and think "antibiotics" did this."

This is wrong. This is not how penicillin was discovered. One of the greatest public health miracles of the century did not happen because someone had a creative idea. What actually happened was that someone was running an experiment, noticed something strange about a plate of bacteria, and then started investigating further. Doing random things and observing the results, not premeditated creative thinking, was the real source of antibiotics.

His claim about antibiotics is wrong so thoroughly that it immediately and permanently discredited his entire thesis. He obviously does not know, or care to know, about the actual, real-life operation of a very important human invention. He has simply made up a narrative to fit his thesis. It is a breathtaking example of intellectual dishonesty. This is an unforgivable sin in someone trying to tell me how to change my thought process make good things happen.

I must assume that if he cares so little about truth and reason where I can catch him, he must be just as cavalier in the places I cannot catch him. I must assume that all of the rest of his examples and evidence are just as false, and therefore that any conclusions he has are false, wrong, and useless. It is clear that he has imagined a reality that fits his prejudice, rather than forming his ideas by observing reality.

Until I encountered this monstrous lie, I was prepared to accept the book's thesis. When I was kicked out of my acceptance, I immediately started thinking of other information that opposed the cult of 'creative thinking' Just like in the case of penicillin, progress does not come from thinking. It comes from tinkering, experimenting, observation, recording and sharing the results of random tests and observations.

The history of actual science, and our knowledge of how the human brain works, both tell us that thinking mainly exists to explain what has already happened. For most of human history, discoveries came first, and then the theories came later. People did things, got their hands dirty with the physical world, ran experiments and observed the results, tinkered and explored, and after all that was done, the creative thinkers spun theories to try to explain the results. Most of these theories were worthless, but some were right, and produced testable predictions, and then more experiments were used to figure out which theories were useful.

Thought is, to a first approximation, worthless. Humans have been thinking for thousands of years, producing vast volumes of philosophy and theology that are basically useless. Human life remained nasty, brutish, and short until we stumbled across the habit of running experiments and sharing the results.

If you want to accomplish something with your life, then the best advice is to stop thinking things and start doing new things. Try new activities, make new friends, and learn new skills. Humans spend way too much time just sitting around and thinking, and they accomplish almost nothing by doing so. Much 'thinking' is just a way to try to signal good qualities to people we want to impress.

Rich countries today are full of overeducated "creative thinkers" with no useful skills. If you talk about your creative thinking in a job interview, that is a strong signal that you have accomplished nothing in your life. People want results, and they want people who can deliver results, and results come from doing lots of different things and developing skills and good habits. Experience is far more important than thinking, and you will not get experience in anything useful by thinking about things.

I freely admit that I do not follow this advice. Overthinking things is a vice of mine. I even got lucky enough to land one of the few jobs where creative thinking is actually a useful skill. But I did not get the job because of my creativity. I got the job because I had produced a good job market paper; I had demonstrated that I had already accomplished something that was very similar to what they wanted me to do in the job.

The best businesses today do not rely on creativity. They rely on data and tests. They experiment with lots of things, observe the results, tweak things, and experiment again. Creativity is one small and almost unnecessary part of this process; it can tell what it might be interesting to test.

Creativity is mainly an asset in the bizarre, artificial, and manipulative world of the entertainment industry. Human do crave creativity in their entertainment. I argue that they crave it for exactly the same reason that they crave airbrushed images of sexually attractive people. It is something that we have evolved to see as a good signal. Creative people make good political allies because they can find persuasive ways of arguing that our side is right and their side is wrong, so the tribe should banish them and reward us.

Okay, the rant is winding down. I see no reason to try to keep it going or tidy it up. If this were a LessWrong group meeting, it would have started an interesting and creative discussion and I could start enjoying listening to and sharing the creative thoughts of potentially useful allies...

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ideal Hedge Fund

A friend asked me an interesting question today:

"If you could design an ideal, i.e. optimally efficient and proficient hedgefund, how would you go about it?  What features would make it unique?"

As I was answering, I realized that it would make a good blog post. So:

Short answer to question 1: The optimal hedge fund is a venture capital firm that either operates in an industry served by no other venture capital firms, or uses validated testing methods to judge the people they invest in.

Short answer to question 2: Actually pay your traders for alpha, by correcting their returns for both average market returns and the beta of whatever they are doing. None of this '2 and 20' nonsense that just rewards people for sitting on a lot of risky assets in a bull market.

Long answer: Asking an economist to design an ideal hedge fund is like asking an engineer to design an ideal motor. The structure, size, and organization depend in the intended use and a lot of other design constraints. If you are actually looking for a way to hedge risk, then it matters what risk you are trying to hedge against.

If by 'hedge fund' you mean a way to make excess returns by taking advantage of market inefficiencies, which I assume, then the important thing to remember is that the only way to beat the market is to be smarter than the market. That means being not only smarter than every individual trading in the market, but smarter than their entire combined intelligence as coordinated by prices and institutional knowledge.

It is basically impossible to be smarter than a large, liquid, well-analyzed market (unless you have access to Strong AI and nobody else does). You have to look for markets that are underanalyzed and illiquid, where highly specialized knowledge is needed to operate or that trained finance people have neglected so far. For example, the Harvard endowment was known for investing in things like timber land.

Of course, finding such markets is also a hard problem, because you have to be smarter or have better connections than everyone else attempting the task. However, you may have success by hiring subject matter experts with esoteric knowledge, and then spending the time and money to teach them about finance and markets. These experts should probably be experienced industry insiders rather than academic experts, although you will need a few people with technical and quantitative skills for the serious number-crunching.

Then you have to give them the right incentives. You have to make sure that you are not rewarding churn, but also not rewarding just sitting on assets. Actually pay your traders for alpha, by correcting their returns for both average market returns and the beta of whatever they are doing. This would be the unique internal organization of my ideally managed hedge fund.

I'd guess that the biggest market inefficiency in our economy today is that small companies are starved for investment because banks are trying to recover their balance sheets. They are being crazy strict with their small business loans, but in their defense, knowing which small businesses are worth investing in is a hard problem. You need good industry experience, good finance knowledge, and probably most important, good skills at reading people and judging their competence and character.

If you can get away with it, maybe you could use tests of various kinds, from personality tests to practical tests related to important business skills, to judge the loan applicants. That would be unique, and almost certainly more effective than standard interviewing techniques. However, be warned that the character traits that make good employees, like IQ and conscientiousness, are not the most important for entrepreneurial success. That seems to be based on perseverance, networking skills, and other things that valid testing instruments do not exist for.

If you invested in researching and validating such tests, then perhaps it could be a source of competitive advantage. I understand tech forms like Google do similar things for choosing employees. But the fact that nobody uses applicant aptitude tests to make venture capital investment decisions may suggest that there are legal problems. If your tests were discriminatory, you might get in trouble. That would require legal analysis.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Constructive Criticism

My boss just told me, "For a very intelligent person, you are really good at taking constructive criticism."

It seems obvious to me that I am very intelligent because I am good at learning from constructive criticism. Nobody is born knowing anything useful. Almost by definition, being an intelligent person means that, at some point in the past, you were good at taking constructive criticism from somebody. 'Learning from constructive criticism' is basically the definition of 'education'.

I walked into this job with the attitude that my bosses and the other experienced people were my teachers, and I was a student. I treat them like I treated my professors in grad school, respecting and deferring to their superior skills and experience while being unafraid to add my own knowledge, ask questions, and make suggestions.

I consider it right and proper that my draft documents will come back to me with dozens of comments and edits. I am the apprentice, and they are the masters. My work will inevitably have problems until I learn the approach, techniques, and presentation that the organization requires.

Even when the people editing and commenting on my documents are not the masters of my profession, they will always know something that I do not, or have a perspective that I need to consider. I can only learn from them, or learn how to communicate with them, if I respect and react well to their criticism.

But it is not just my intelligence that is boosted by my attitude to criticism. It actually helps my creativity as well. In the process of creation, I do not simply copy what has been done before. I do what I know is right, not what I think they want. I do not self-censor. This freedom and creativity comes because I know that my work will be criticized and edited as necessary, and I do not fear this. I am not afraid of being told to change. It is far better to see someone else squash my creativity into a box than to unconsciously internalize a stifling set of boundaries and limitations.

The key to this process is to sever any connection between my ego and the first draft of my work. Being told that I need to make big changes to my work is no threat to me, and I do not react with any defensiveness or hostility. I know that at the end of the process, my work will be very good. It will contain much of my originality and creativity and skill, while being molded in ways that make its readers better understand and accept it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mental Strangeness

Today I was confronted with something that made me realize how different I am from other people. It was a list of security questions for password resets. I assume that they were chosen because most people would easily be able to give a consistent answer to them. But most of the questions involved concepts, experiences, or mental processes that are alien or unimportant to me. I will run down the list:

"What is the first name of your best friend in high school?"

I do not have 'best friends'. This concept is alien to me. I have friends, and I do not rank them. There are three or four people with equal claim to 'best friend' in high school and my mind refuses to decide among them.

"Where would you most like to live?"

I have never thought about this and my answer to the question would likely change quite often. It seems a waste of time to dream and fantasize like this.

"What is the first name of your first boyfriend or girlfriend?"

The definition of the word 'girlfriend' is a very vague and fuzzy one, especially in the modern world. I am not sure if the first woman I kissed qualifies as a girlfriend or not.

"What city would you most like to visit?"

Again, I have never thought of this. There are lots of interesting places in the world that I might go to, but ranking them in terms of desire is never something I have done.

"What is the name of the street your childhood friend lived on?"

How am I supposed to decide which friend this refers to? I had lots of childhood friends. And I do not remember the street that any of them lived on, because my parents were driving.

"What is your favorite food?"

Again they ask me to rank things. I like lots of things, and my preferences change depending on factors like the season, what I have been eating recently, what I feel like, what the occasion is, and who I am with.

"What would you like your nickname to be?"

I hate nicknames. I want people to call me by my real name.

"Who is your favorite cartoon character?"

The media that I choose to consume at any time depends greatly on my mood and the situation. How can it make any sense to make arbitrary decisions like this? The word 'favorite' is inherently problematic for me. The very concept of picking a favorite seems both ill-defined and senseless in a wide variety of contexts. What is the point? Cartoons do not compete like sports teams. Am I declaring that I would always or usually choose to watch a cartoon with that character over any other? This is dumb. Am I declaring my affiliation to a certain social group of people that identify with the character? This also seems like a silly way of dividing and separating people.

"If you had the time and money to pursue any hobby, what would it be?"

Not only is this another ranking or favorite question, it presupposes that I desire to do something with my life that I am not currently doing. This seems like it would be an unpleasant state of existence.

"In what city did you meet your spouse/significant other?"

I do not currently have such a person.

"What was the model of the first car you drove?"

I have no idea which car my parents taught me to drive in. It was long ago and they no longer own it.

"What was the second state or country you lived in?"

Finally, a legitimate question about a well-defined fact of my life.

"What is the first name of the cousin who is closest to your age?"

I have lots of cousins close to my age, and I am not sure which one is the closest. I do not keep track of the ages of people with such precision.

"What was the first concert you attended?"

I have never been to a concert.

"What is your father's middle name?"

The second proper factual question.

"What is your maternal grandmother's first name?"

The third good question.

"What was/is your grandfather's occupation?"

I have two grandfathers, and each of them had several occupations.

Out of all these questions, I can only give a reliable and consistent answer to three of them. Most of the questions presupppose that I have generated arbitrary and irrelevant, but fixed and stable, ordered rankings about the things in my life. Many of the others assume that my life and that of my family followed some narrowly defined script.

One of the facts that people often do not understand about me is that I do not instinctively judge most of the things around me. Life happens. I experience things. I decide and act based on the situation and the constraints I face at the time. It seems a waste of mental energy to assign the things around me to arbitrary categories, or to compare and rank them. Judgments should be reserved for important things, and not the petty details of my personal existence.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Message to Yourself

If you could call yourself five years ago and had 30 seconds, what would you say?

Think about it. Consider several options. Think about your priorities. When you have made a decision, read on.

Most people seem to answer this question with advice for their personal life. This was one of my first instincts as well. This says a lot about the way that human instincts work. Our minds seem programmed to focus on petty personal things.

A slightly higher order of thought is to give yourself advice on buying stocks. This is much more useful than personal advice if your goal is to maximize your personal quality of life, but it is still a rather petty and selfish thing to do.

After a bit of thought, I started to consider what kind of tragedies I could have prevented if I had accurate information from the future. A lot of bad things have happened in the last five years. Crafting the ideal message then becomes a problem of identifying bad things that I could prevent if I had foreknowledge of them, guessing the probabality of preventing them, and multiplying to find the highest expected benefit for the world.

Probably the worst disaster of the past five years is the Syrian civil war. But I cannot think of any way that I could have prevented that catastrophe. Even if I was the actual president of the US, it is not clear that I could have stopped it. It is a messy diplomatic and geopolitical situation, and an unverifiable 'message form the future' will add nothing to efforts to prevent the disaster, even if that information turns out to be accurate.

The same is true for any number of natural disasters, famines, and diseases. I do not think that a random Economics PhD student could have any real chance of preventing such things, even with 30 seconds of accurate information. Presumably I would trust the message, but attempting to tell anyone else about the source of my knowledge would mark me as a madman.

However, there are much smaller tragedies that I might have had a good chance of preventing with a phone call to the right people at the right time. Despite the fact that the FBI gets millions of signals a day, and has an incredibly difficult job of choosing which ones to act on, a very clear warning about a specific person on a specific date would probably get a serious response. If I called in about a week before the Boston marathon bombings and gave the name of the perpetrator and said I knew he was planning an attack, they would probably start investigating.

Outbreaks of foodborne illness kill far more Americans each year than criminals and terrorists. If I was in a position of authority, then knowledge of things like the 2011 listeriosis outbreak from contaminated cantaloupe, or the 2012 meningitis outbreak from compounding pharmacy drugs, would allow me to save far more lives than knowledge of criminal acts that kill a half or a third as many people. But I do not think that a message from a random civilian would be able to start an investigation that would prevent these things.

So, my message to myself would be a brief description of the worst domestic crimes and attacks in the past five years, with dates and perpetrators. I have not researched this very thoroughly, but my first guess would be the Fort Hood shootings, the Sandy Hook shootings, and the Boston marathon bombings. Those are bad events that I could have a high probability of stopping if I had accurate information in advance of the attacks, and that information is probably the limit of what I could fit into 30 seconds.

Monday, April 8, 2013

4 Player Chess

Last night I won a game of four player chess by accident. I know that any of the other players could have crushed me in a two-player chess game, but the four-player version is a different game in interesting ways. For example, it is rarely a good idea to trade pieces, even if you can take a more valuable piece, because that means that your two other opponents are both in a better position.

The game is fascinating. Although the pieces move the same way, the strategic dynamics are very different. It is not possible to play 4-player chess the same way you play 2-player chess. If you try to think through future moves, you will be exhausted from the mental effort and your work will be for naught, because the board can change dramatically based on the actions of your opponents moving against each other. One player was paralyzed with indecision, not wanting to move anything, before giving up and turning his side over to someone else.

You have to play 4-player chess like you play Go. Instead of trying to be a chess computer, go with intuitions of life, breathing, influence, and position. From the start I did not try to think through things; I made bold moves to shake up the game and cause interesting things to happen. Very early on in the game I 'opened Pandora's Box' by moving a piece where it could have been costlessly captured by another player, pointing out that he had no incentive to capture the piece because it was threatening his opponents more than him.

Later, there were many times in the game where I had no obvious move, so I just shifted my pieces so that they had more options, threatened more squares, or were defended by more pieces. Someone else was asking me a question about fitting Vibram Fivefingers, so I was not paying much attention, and for a couple turns I was randomly putting pressure on the leading player by putting him in check. Then he congratulated me for a checkmate and game win. When I asked how that happened, he told me that I could move my queen right next to his king, where it was covered by my knight, and I had a bishop blocking the escape routes.

When you take someone's king, you control all the pieces left on that side. The player I could checkmate had already done this to another player. It had been a very swift reversal; it had appeared that he was aiming for one player but then he saw an opportunity to checkmate another player instead.

I suspect that the game could degenerate very quickly if you played to win rather than have fun. The optimal strategy is probably to 'turtle up' and build a fortress. Once the game is shaken up and moving quickly, it is fun, but you need a kind of cooperative 'play for the lulz' attitude to make that happen. It may not be a coincidence that I had been playing to have fun and not win, and ended up both winning and making the game fun.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Packaged Food

Here is a good and important New York Times article on packaged foods. I will pull out highlights and add some commentary, which hopefully gets you interested in reading the whole thing.

On the evening of April 8, 1999, a long line of Town Cars and taxis pulled up to the Minneapolis headquarters of Pillsbury and discharged 11 men who controlled America's largest food companies. Nestlé was in attendance, as were Kraft and Nabisco, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Mars. Rivals any other day, the C.E.O.'s and company presidents had come together for a rare, private meeting. On the agenda was one item: the emerging obesity epidemic and how to deal with it.

The food industry is locked in a classic arms race. They are not monsters and they would love to give people healthy food if it meant the same profits. The problem is that if they fail to add sugar and salt to everything, they will lose market share to their competitors and eventually go out of business. So they spend vast amounts of money 'optimizing' foods for maximum taste in order to stay in business.

In most situations, we want to see companies working hard to deliver products that consumers want at a good price. That is what makes market economies so good. But the problem is that when it comes to food, the things that people want will end up killing them.

The way you end an arms race is with some kind of binding agreement. If everyone agrees to prevent the escalation of the arms race, then everyone is better off. Humans have a lot of instincts about fairness and society that help us maintain these kinds of agreements. This meeting was obviously an attempt to stop the arms race, allowing the companies to maintain their situation and keep food healthy.

It was a noble effort, but it failed, as the article describes. Outside of small groups that trust each other, these agreements are always hard to sustain, because the incentives to defect are so strong. If every other food company is making bland healthy food, you can make amazing amounts of money by adding salt and sugar to your stuff. This process is what makes non-competitive agreements hard to sustain, and generally protects consumers from cartels and incumbent firms getting lazy and trying to make profits without constant innovation. But again, with food the process works against consumers.

In the process of product optimization, food engineers alter a litany of variables with the sole intent of finding the most perfect version (or versions) of a product. Ordinary consumers are paid to spend hours sitting in rooms where they touch, feel, sip, smell, swirl and taste whatever product is in question. Their opinions are dumped into a computer, and the data are sifted and sorted through a statistical method called conjoint analysis, which determines what features will be most attractive to consumers.

If you are relying on your instincts and sensations to guide your diet, you have no chance of remaining healthy. The techniques described in the article will generate superstimuli, foods unlike anything found in nature, and your instincts will tell you that you should seek them out. When all of the tools of modern science are being deployed to create something that you will find attractive, then it requires a monastic level of asceticism to avoid that thing. When the attractive things are full of sugar and salt and have no vitamins, then people without such extreme self-control will suffer lots of nasty health problems.

The military has long been in a peculiar bind when it comes to food: how to get soldiers to eat more rations when they are in the field. They know that over time, soldiers would gradually find their meals-ready-to-eat so boring that they would toss them away, half-eaten, and not get all the calories they needed. But what was causing this M.R.E.-fatigue was a mystery.

A lot of people would like to have this problem, and there are several lessons here. The first is the value of exercise. Soldiers in the field are burning a lot of calories. Their instincts may not be telling them to replace all of these calories.

The second lesson is the power of novelty. Although there is a lot of individual variation, the reward system in our brains seems to have an instinct to reward us for new experiences. If you are in a good place with your diet, then trying something new might be hazardous to your waistline.

The final lesson is that a restricted diet may help you lose weight because your appetite will diminish. This might explain the constant popularity of fad diets, even though there is no medical reason for them to accomplish anything if calorie intake is held constant. Any arbitrary and strict limit on your diet will be easy to remember and may decrease your appetite, so they may produce good results as long as you are getting all the vitamins and important nutrients you need.

With production costs trimmed and profits coming in, the next question was how to expand the franchise, which they did by turning to one of the cardinal rules in processed food: When in doubt, add sugar.

We are now realizing that added sugar can be a bigger problem than natural fats. When I turn three plantains and an avocado into a feast of chips and guacamole and eat that for dinner, it is not the healthiest thing in the world but it probably does less damage to me than a dinner of spaghetti and premade sauce.

Kraft's early Lunchables campaign targeted mothers. They might be too distracted by work to make a lunch, but they loved their kids enough to offer them this prepackaged gift. But as the focus swung toward kids, Saturday-morning cartoons started carrying an ad that offered a different message: "All day, you gotta do what they say," the ads said. "But lunchtime is all yours."

I find this kind of thing abhorrent. Adults have the ability and understanding to deploy self-control against psychological pressure and optimized superstimuli, even though it is hard. But feeding on the insecurities of adolescents to sell them a horribly unhealthy packed food is inexcusable. This particular message is especially sinister because it implies that any parent that does the responsible thing and refuses to buy this junk is denying children the freedom they deserve.

We need to understand as a society that children are simply not qualified to make any choices about diet and nutrition. Most of them have no chance to resist the seduction of these carefully optimized superstimulus foods. Once they are exposed to such things, their desires and instincts will be warped and distorted and they will start to see healthier foods as inferior, and refuse to eat them.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

North Korea

Maybe I am overreacting to recent news, and this is certainly not my area of expertise, but it seems that the situation in North Korea is going to change dramatically in the next few years or possibly even months.

For over a decade now, there has been a constant cycle of North Korean nuclear ambitions, plans, and tests, combined with bellicose rhetoric. It may not appear that this recent news is any different from all the rest, but there is a good chance that we are reaching a tipping point.

For decades, there has been an equilibrium where China protected North Korea and kept the situation stable. But now it appears that China is supporting strong sanctions against North Korea. Maybe this is not an actual change in policy, and maybe China is just sending a stronger signal to North Korea in an attempt to stabilize the situation, but there is a good chance that China is cutting North Korea loose. They may be calculating that ending the situation now is better than letting it linger. The fact that this new UN resolution comes just after a leadership change in China could be significant.

Even accounting for changes in the situation and internal Chinese politics, achieving this cooperation from China should be counted as a major accomplishment of the Obama administration. It is a major change from the past, and it could lead to a major improvement in the security and human rights situation in east Asia.

However, there is also a lot of danger. If China stops supporting North Korea, then the days of the regime will be numbered. It simply cannot sustain itself without constant support from the outside world, and it knows this fact. If China actually does cut them loose, that will start the countdown on a bomb. Hopefully the bomb can be defused before it goes off.

I suspect that history books will see the Arab Spring and possibly the upcoming events in North Korea as the defining aspects of the Obama administration, and that our current economic troubles and budget squabbles will seem utterly insignificant in comparison.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sequester Correction

I was wrong about the USDA's actions in response to the sequester. The law says that all programs must be cut equally, which means that the food inspection service of the UDSA must be cut as much as everything else. It is not possible to transfer money from the rest of USDA to keep food inspection running. Since 87% the inspection budget is salaries of inspectors and the rest is support staff, there is no other place the money can come from.

So there will be problems, and there is nothing UDSA can do right now without a new law or some action by the White House to change the process to give agencies more flexibility.

Source, and I checked it for accuracy by reading the OMB report on sequestration.

I have little commentary to add, but see here for political analysis.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Anthropomorphizing Animals

The WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) mind also appears to be unique in terms of how it comes to understand and interact with the natural world. Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world. While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called "folkbiological reasoning." These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.

Source: We Aren't the World (I recommend reading the whole article, it is full if interesting and important facts.)

American children are constantly exposed to lies about animals. Much of the media they consume features animals that talk, think, and act like humans. They are exposed to this media far more than they are exposed to actual animals, and this fills their minds with mistakes.

For example, I was quite old before I realized that cats do not have the mental capacity to understand pointing at an object. Only dogs and humans, and some great apes, understand the concept of focusing attention on a thing that another creature is pointing at. I had assumed that cats can and should understand communication via pointing. My understanding of their actual behavior and capabilities was wrong, distorted by both my untutored instincts and by my unending exposure to media and a culture that treats their actions as human.

There are many, many people in our country who never stop projecting human qualities onto animals.  Most pet owners act as if their animals had human feelings, emotions, and desires. Pet behavior is interpreted as if it was human behavior. Cultures that have a better understanding of animals and the natural world do not make this mistake. They treat their animals as tools, fundamentally inhuman things that must be well-maintained but have no rights or purpose other than the jobs they perform. They view the WIERD relationship with animals as insanity.

If or when I have children, I will try to make sure that they have a lot of exposure to the natural world, and as little exposure as possible to media that features human-like animals. I want them to grow up with a realistic understanding of the world, and not a mind full of lies.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Tooth-to-tail ratio and sequestration

I have a fondness for military terminology. People in the US military often invents phrases that are memorable, accurate, and evocative. One of them is 'tooth-to-tail ratio'. It describes the proportion of combat troops (teeth) to support troops (tail).

The concept can be applied to many organizations. Very often, there is an identifiable group of people doing the 'front-line' work and a separate group supporting and directing them. For example, in education, the teachers are the teeth and the administrators are the tail. In health care, doctors and nurses are teeth and everyone else is the tail. In the USDA, the inspectors are the teeth and the people in Washington are the tail.

Teeth do need a tail to function. A pile of teeth without something holding them together is rarely effective at anything. But we often see a process of 'administrative bloat' where the tail keeps getting bigger and bigger without doing much to make the teeth more effective.

This is an inevitable outcome of human nature. People making decisions will instinctively try to help and protect themselves and the people they care about. Often, the people in the tail are combined in a single location and are socially connected, while the teeth are scattered about. This makes the process even harder to stop, because the prejudices of the people in the tail will reinforce each other and the knowledge of the teeth can get ignored. The administrators convince themselves that they are essential and all need more support staff, and the problems of the teeth start to seem as remote as the problems of poor children in Mali.

Competitive markets prevent tails from getting too fat. Any organization with a bloated tail will not last long, because someone else will steal away their customers by selling access to the teeth at a better rate. But if customers have no real choice, or the organization's budget is determined by a process that does not involve customers, there is little to stop the tail from fattening itself endlessly. This is most likely to happen in government agencies.

When budget cuts hit, the rational thing to do is almost always to cut the tail. It is very rate to see any kind of organization where there are too many teeth for the tail to support and cutting the teeth lets them bite more effectively. But the tail will always attempt to respond to budget cuts by cutting out teeth rather than let itself shrink. And because one of the functions of the tail is to manage the organization's money, it will get what it wants unless there is a lot of outside force to compel it to act otherwise.

With public agencies, there is an additional perverse incentive. Everyone in the organization, both teeth and tail, will want to increase the organization's budget. The way to do this is to convince everybody that cutting the budget would result in a disaster. Claiming that the teeth will fall out if the beast is starved will often result in the beast getting the food it wants. And for the reasons described above, this is a credible threat. The tail will actually prefer to cut out the teeth, and everyone knows it.

With that in mind, consider the recent news story that The USDA is claiming that sequestration will force it to furlough food safety inspectors.

Anyone with any knowledge of the USDA knows that this ridiculous. The Food Safety and Inspection Service is a tiny part of UDSA's budget. Most of their money goes to programs that promote US agriculture and farmers' interests rather than food safety. There are literally dozens of programs that could be cut that are less important than food inspection. Their tooth-to-tail ratio is already miniscule. Inspectors are mainly independent, working on their own in meat plants. They are probably capable of doing their jobs perfectly well for at least two weeks even if every other employee in the USDA was furloughed.

This announcement is a combination of political ploy and a self-serving tail. The potential budget cuts would not cause any decrease in food inspections if the organization was actually being run in the interests of the public. By comparison, the food side of FDA is not threatening to cut any food inspections or laboratory tests.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association rarely says anything worth listening to, but their quote in the linked article is worth repeating: USDA is "using America's cattlemen and women as pawns in the agency's political wrangling with Congress".