Monday, February 28, 2011

This should literally be a textbook example of how phrasing and context affect polling

Talking Points Memo discusses how two polls given in the same week can get starkly different results:

Last week, a Gallup poll showed that 60% of Americans would rather see a budget compromise than see members of Congress who represent their interests hold out for their ideal budget, if it means the government would shut down. That phrases the current debate in Washington fairly concisely.

Compare that to Rasmussen, which framed the question much differently:

5* Would you rather have Congress avoid a government shutdown by authorizing spending at the same levels as last year or would you rather have a partial government shutdown until Democrats and Republicans can agree on what spending to cut?

That frames the budget showdown as an either or: either the government continues spending at current levels, or it shuts down until cuts are made. In response to that, 58% of likely voters said they preferred a government shutdown.

Rasmussen is, of course, something of a special case. To understand just how special, take a look at Nate Silver's excellent analysis,"When ‘House Effects’ Become ‘Bias.’"

More big burdens, more small shoulders

From Jonathan Cohn:

Please indulge me while I share some local news: Rick Snyder, newly elected governor in my home state of Michigan, announced this week that he will call for massive cuts in state spending on education.* (*Note: My [Cohn's] wife is a professor at a public university that would lose some funding under Snyder’s plan. I doubt she'll feel much impact from these cuts. But, as you can guess from this item, I think my kids will.) Very roughly, it will result in a reduction of about $470 per student.

I know enough about public education, and public education bureaucracies, to believe that school districts could find ways to reduce spending without hurting the quality of education. And, yes, it would probably mean teachers and staff making more concessions on salaries or, more likely, benefits.

But could they find $470 per student that way? I don't think so. On the contrary, I expect that schools--including the ones that my sons attend--would end up with fewer teachers, fewer courses, and fewer extracurricular offerings if the legislature approves Snyder's plan. And my kids would be among the lucky ones. It would be much worse in places like Detroit, where an ongoing funding crisis is about to swell some classes to 60 students. (No, that’s not a misprint.)

Health Insurance

Discussion of individual health insurance (with or wihtout pre-existing medical conditions) often overlooks the point that a pay as you go system is inherently expensive here in the United States. Consider:

Why did we even need insurance? First, we wanted to know that, if we had a medical catastrophe, we would not exhaust our savings. Second, uninsured patients are billed more than the rates that insurers negotiate with doctors and hospitals, and we wanted to pay those lower rates. The difference is significant: my recent M.R.I. cost $1,300 at the “retail” rate, while the rate negotiated by the insurance company was $700.

Obviously standard market mechanisms are not going to be able to kick in when the only way to get affordable care is to be part of a pooled insurance plan. And, with rate differentials this high, no sane person will exit the health insurance market. So the whole idea of free market heakth care is a bit of a distraction: our system is designed for people who have insurance.

[Not to mention the impact of policies that can be rescinded for good faith errors; these factors make the market opaque and resistant to market forces]

The biggest burdens go on the smallest shoulders

In today's New York Times, Paul Krugman reminds us just how hypocritical all the talk we hear about "putting children first" really is:

And in low-tax, low-spending Texas, the kids are not all right. The high school graduation rate, at just 61.3 percent, puts Texas 43rd out of 50 in state rankings. Nationally, the state ranks fifth in child poverty; it leads in the percentage of children without health insurance. And only 78 percent of Texas children are in excellent or very good health, significantly below the national average.

But wait — how can graduation rates be so low when Texas had that education miracle back when former President Bush was governor? Well, a couple of years into his presidency the truth about that miracle came out: Texas school administrators achieved low reported dropout rates the old-fashioned way — they, ahem, got the numbers wrong.

It’s not a pretty picture; compassion aside, you have to wonder — and many business people in Texas do — how the state can prosper in the long run with a future work force blighted by childhood poverty, poor health and lack of education.

But things are about to get much worse.

A few months ago another Texas miracle went the way of that education miracle of the 1990s. For months, Gov. Rick Perry had boasted that his “tough conservative decisions” had kept the budget in surplus while allowing the state to weather the recession unscathed. But after Mr. Perry’s re-election, reality intruded — funny how that happens — and the state is now scrambling to close a huge budget gap. (By the way, given the current efforts to blame public-sector unions for state fiscal problems, it’s worth noting that the mess in Texas was achieved with an overwhelmingly nonunion work force.)

So how will that gap be closed? Given the already dire condition of Texas children, you might have expected the state’s leaders to focus the pain elsewhere. In particular, you might have expected high-income Texans, who pay much less in state and local taxes than the national average, to be asked to bear at least some of the burden.

But you’d be wrong. Tax increases have been ruled out of consideration; the gap will be closed solely through spending cuts. Medicaid, a program that is crucial to many of the state’s children, will take the biggest hit, with the Legislature proposing a funding cut of no less than 29 percent, including a reduction in the state’s already low payments to providers — raising fears that doctors will start refusing to see Medicaid patients. And education will also face steep cuts, with school administrators talking about as many as 100,000 layoffs.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Castles and Crusades

Mark has been doing a games section on the blog (it's cool and you should check out some of his posts). If we are lucky, he might do a post on Kruzno, eventually.

The Castle Keepers Guide has now been released for Castles and Crusades making the base game system complete. For fans of older style role playing games this is a major milestone, admittedly one that comes late in the day. But it's a good book and has a lot of the "look and feel" of Gary Gygax's classic writing. It's well worth a look.

Some Thoughts on Personal Finance

It was unfortunate that Mark decided not to write about personal finance as I think that there is a lot to say about this topic. In particular, I agree that it was odd that this article was treated as a revelation. Consider this comment:

I won’t bore you with the math, but this meal plan cuts out all the extras. No snacks, no OJ, no organic milk at $5.99 per gallon, no Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top of that pasta, no frozen yogurt at night in front of DWTS. The husband brown bags it to the office. I’ll admit I included my coffee, at $2.15 per week, because I consider it essential, along with milk for the kids at every meal.

I have actually been extremely poor and I begin to think that most financial journalists have never been in that state. I remember saving up to buy powdered skim milk (as the only possible option) and would never have dreamed of affording organic milk. Some of the cheap food options that are listed are good but I remember buying huge bags of rice (10 kg, if I remember correctly) so I could stretch a tiny food budget out over a month. I notice this level of extreme economy is absent from the discussion.

In a lot of ways this is a good thing. The United States is wealthy country and it is good that inexpensive food is an feature of our society. But one should not mistake this advice as being how one would actually deal with dire poverty.

A Miscellany of Topics That Will Not Appear in My Next Blog Post

I've recently gotten in the habit of using the "save and quit" option on my browser when I shut down my laptop. The driver of this odd behavior is the ever-growing pile of posts I'm meaning to write.

I've decided to stop telling myself that I'll eventually get around to them (if you're going to tell yourself lies, you should really save them for the big stuff). Instead, I'm going to use this post as a data dump with links and brief descriptions of the articles. I'll probably get around to some of them eventually, but if something sounds interesting, don't wait for me. If any of these seem to merit more attention, let me know and I'll put it on the top of the pile:

Education researchers need to worry more about the Hawthorne effect;

And the Halo effect;

Why are financial advice columnists so clueless about living on a budget?;

On a related note, how to get concert tickets for just $350 isn't really the kind of financial advice we really need at the moment;

The Collegiate Learning Assessment sounds promising but I'm not sure sure it supports the coverage it's gotten, let alone a book;

Not to be cynical, but has any educational study not shown promising results? (see Hawthorne effect);

On a related topic, when we hear about a new study discrediting an old technique, how can we be sure they didn't just use the technique badly? (not sayin', just wonderin');

Whenever an economist talks about how regular people just aren't as clear-headed and rational as economists are, it makes baby Jesus cry;

Michael Hiltzik is really sharp;

Felix Salmon thinks so too;

Paul Krugman also has something to say on the topic;

"[H]e suddenly declared that we needed to cut taxes to prevent too rapid a reduction in US debt." (comment is superfluous);

I really need to write something about this;

And this;

I wonder what Daniel Little would say about social norming in the classroom?

This round just might go to Eminem

Edward L. Glaeser has been tough on Detroit and the auto industry. Here's how he opened a column last week:
During the Super Bowl, Chrysler and Eminem gave us a chest-thumping, soul-lifting vision of Detroit as a city of character, competence and style. But the Census tells us that per-capita incomes in Detroit are barely half the national average and that one-third of the city lives in poverty.

Michigan was the only state that lost people from 2000 to 2010, and the state’s unemployment rate remains near 12 percent. Is it possible that Detroit will turn the corner despite decades of decline?

It's safe to assume that the answer Glaeser had in mind for his rhetorical question didn't rely too much on the Big Three. Back in June, 2009, here's what he had to say about the bailouts:
Since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the public sector has spent billions saving the banks. While these decisions are certainly debatable, they are understandable. The US financial industry misbehaved badly,... but it is still a sector with a future. ... After all, every other sector in the economy depends on banks for their financing.

But what about cars? ... Does anyone, other than GM's management, believe that this company can come back? The current treatment, cash infusion and a reduction in corporate liabilities, provides a solution for a company that is broke, not for one that is broken.
Given that analysis, it might be interesting to get his take on this item from the New York Times:
General Motors, which nearly collapsed from the weight of its debts two years ago before reorganizing in a government-sponsored bankruptcy, said Thursday that it earned $4.7 billion in 2010, the most in more than a decade.
It was the first profitable year since 2004 for G.M., which became publicly traded in November, ending a streak of losses totaling about $90 billion.
In addition, G.M. said 45,000 union workers would receive profit-sharing checks averaging $4,300, the most in the company’s history. ...
Globally, G.M.’s sales rose 12.2 percent in 2010, to 8.39 million, coming within about 30,000 vehicles of retaking the title of world’s largest automaker from Toyota. For the first time, it sold more cars and trucks in China, where its sales rose 28.8 percent from 2009, than in the United States, where sales were up 6.3 percent.

Or to see what he had to say about Jonathan Cohn's reaction to the news:

Seriously, though, this is another important milestone for GM. Profits for the final quarter were actually lower than initial expectations. But the company attributed that, in part, to heavy investment in the development of new products, which is a sign of company health. “Their recovery has been fueled by significant cost-cutting, arrival of new products that consumers were seeking along with better management of incentives and supply,” Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends and insight at, told the Times. “The sky is the limit for G.M. after becoming profitable at this low of a sales pace.”

Of course, the usual caveats apply: The two companies could still stumble and Chrysler, in particular, still needs to prove they can cars as good as their television commercials. And it's not as if workers in the auto industry didn't take a huge hit anyway: Many did lose their jobs and new employees are making a lot less money than old ones do.

Still, it looks increasingly like the rescue of the auto industry was an overall success, saving hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of jobs and bolstering the country's manufacturing base for years (if not decades) to come. Maybe it's time to start giving President Obama some credit for it--and recognizing that, when properly managed, the federal government can do a lot of good.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Weekend Gaming -- Piet Hein's TacTix

A Grook by Piet Hein:


There is
one art,
no more,
no less:
to do
all things
with art-

Piet Hein was, among many other things, an inventor of remarkably clever games. After Hex,* his most famous is probably his two-dimensional variant on nim, TacTix.

As with most of Hein's recreations (even those dealing with sophisticated mathematical concepts), the rules of TacTix are wonderfully simple. The players take turns picking up pieces from the board (shown above) until the losing player is forced to pick up the last piece. The players can pick up as many pieces at a time as they choose with the only constraint being that the pieces have to be in the same row or column and have to be contiguous.

Here's what what a game might look like after a couple of moves (taken from this sample game):

TacTix doesn't quite meet Othello's "a minute to learn a lifetime to master" standard, it yields fairly easily to analysis (or to practice if you're paying attention), but while this keeps it out of competition with chess and Go and less well-known games like agon, Hein's invention still has a lot to offer:

The rules are almost as simple as TicTacToe, making it an ideal game for very young players;

Like TicTacToe, TacTix can easily be played as a pencil-and-paper game. Just mark off a grid then cross out squares instead of removing pieces;

Unlike more complicated games, the underlying concepts of TacTix are easy to grasp and to teach (Martin Gardner had a good summary in one of his Scientific American columns though I'm not sure where it's collected);

TacTix also makes an excellent programming exercise;

Finally, there's no rule that says you have to follow the rules. Try adding a few of your own. Play around with the board configuration or try flipping a coin to determine whether you can pick up an odd or even number of pieces. Get creative. It's what Hein would have wanted.

* Also independently invented by John Nash a few years later.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Interesting paper on peer effects

I'm not sure this is the ideal methodology to approach this problem (I'd like to see this combined with something that captures the actual interactions in the classroom), but, based on what I've seen, this is a definite improvement.

From VoxEU (via Thoma)

Our recent research uncovers peer effects in education as distinct from the contextual and other correlated influences. Our econometric strategy uses the topological structure of social networks as well as network fixed effects to identify each of these effects separately.

Our analysis is made possible by the use of a unique database on friendship networks from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (AddHealth). The AddHealth database has been designed to study the impact of the social environment (i.e. friends, family, neighbourhood and school) on adolescents' behaviour in the US by collecting data on students in grades 7-12 from a nationally representative sample of roughly 130 private and public schools in years 1994-95 (wave I). A subset of adolescents selected from the rosters of the sampled schools, was then interviewed again in 1995-96 (wave II), in 2001-2 (wave III), and again in 2007-2008 (wave IV). For our purposes, the most interesting aspect of the AddHealth data is the friendship information, which is based upon actual friend nominations. It is collected at wave I, i.e. when individuals were at school. Indeed, pupils were asked to identify their best friends from a school roster (up to five males and five females). As a result, we can reconstruct the whole geometric structure of the friendship networks.

In Calvó-Armengol et al. (2008), we exploit such information to test a peer-effect model which relates analytically equilibrium behaviour to network location. This analysis shows that the structure of friendships ties is an important, and so far unnoticed, determinant of a pupil performance at school. In Patacchini et al. (2011), we follow this line of research by exploiting the other AddHealth waves in order to investigate whether such effect is carried over time. Indeed, the longitudinal structure of the survey provides information on both respondents and friends during the adulthood. In particular, the questionnaire of wave IV contains detailed information on the highest education qualification achieved.

We analyse the impact of the friends' educational attainment on an individual's educational attainment where they are identified as friends during school and in to adulthood. We find that peer effects in education are not only strong but also persistent over time. We find that the most relevant peers are the friends people make in grade 10-12, from when they are around 15 years old. This suggests that individuals are more likely to work towards and apply to college if this choice is popular among their peers, especially in the last years at school. This could represent the effect of contagion and collective socialisation and mean that any education policy targeting specific individuals will have multiplier effects.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

So many problems for such a little state

As if this weren't enough.

From TPM:
According to The Providence Journal, "[s]chool and city leaders said they were forced to issue the mass dismissal notices because of a state law that says teachers must be notified about possible layoffs or terminations by March 1." In a statement, Mayor Angel Taveras said that because the deadline for informing teachers about employment changes came before the budget for next year could be determined, the move was necessary.

"Providence faces significant challenges in getting its financial house in order," Taveras said in the statement. "Spending reductions are inevitable. It is also inevitable that some portion of cuts will come from the school budget. This is why we faced the difficult decision of sending letters to all teachers: we do not yet know what actions will be required and believe it was only fair to let all teachers know about the severity of the situation."

Taveras told the Journal that there would be fewer schools open, and fewer teachers teaching, in Providence next year -- he just couldn't yet say how many.

I hope to have a post up later today on the economics and logistics of hiring and firing of teachers. One of the relevant sub-topics here is the highly compressed hiring season. It is difficult and terribly disruptive (particularly for the students) to make staffing changes during the school year. Unlike most fields where employer and/or employee has the option of deciding that a position isn't a good fit, a teaching assignment represents a decision that all parties will have to live with for the next year.

The result? Take a year's worth of staffing for a labor-intensive industry, up the stakes, then squeeze the whole thing into eight or ten weeks. That's the reality of managing the education workforce. Any viable reform proposal based on changing the way we hire and fire teachers has got to either work under those constraints or fix the system.


John D Cook has a very nice post up about evidence in science:

Though it is not proof, absence of evidence is unusually strong evidence due to subtle statistical result. Compare the following two scenarios.

Scenario 1: You’ve sequenced the DNA of a large number prostate tumors and found that not one had a particular genetic mutation. How confident can you be that prostate tumors never have this mutation?

Scenario 2: You’ve found that 40% of prostate tumors in your sample have a particular mutation. How confident can you be that 40% of all prostate tumors have this mutation?

It turns out you can have more confidence in the first scenario than the second. If you’ve tested N subjects and not found the mutation, the length of your confidence interval around zero is proportional to N. But if you’ve tested N subjects and found the mutation in 40% of subjects, the length of your confidence interval around 0.40 is proportional to √N. So, for example, if N = 10,000 then the former interval has length on the order of 1/10,000 while the latter interval has length on the order of 1/100. This is known as the rule of three. You can find both a frequentist and a Bayesian justification of the rule here.

Absence of evidence is unusually strong evidence that something is at least rare, though it’s not proof. Sometimes you catch a coelacanth.

Now it is true that this approach can be carried too far. The comments section has a really good discussion of the limitations of this type of reasoning (it doesn't handle sudden change points well, for example).

But it is worth noting that a failure to find evidence (despite one's best attempts) does tell you something about the distribution. So, for example, the failure to find a strong benefit for users of Vitamin C on mortality, despite a number of large randomized trials, makes the idea that this drug is actually helpful somewhat less likely. It is true we could look in just one more population and find an important effect. Or that it is only useful in certain physiological states (like the process of getting a cold) which are hard to capture in a population based study.

But failing to find evidence of the association isn't bad evidence, in and of itself that the association is unlikely.

P.S. For those who can't read the journal article, the association between Vitamin C and mortality is Relative Risk 0.97 (95% Confidence Interval:0.88-1.06), N=70 456 participants (this includes all of the trials).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You'll notice they said nothing about the op-eds being fit to print

An unnamed friend of Jonathan Chait had some fun re-editing a recent Tom Friedman column:
A wake-up call’s mother is unfolding. At the other end is a bell, which is telling us we have built a house at the foot of a volcano. The volcano is spewing lava, which says move your house. The road will be long and rocky, but it will trigger a shift before it kicks. We can capture some of it. IF the Middle East was a collection of gas stations, Saudi Arabia would be a station. Iran, Kuwait , Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates would all be stations. Guys, here’s the deal. Don’t hassle the Jews. You are insulated from history. History is back. Fasten your seat belts. Don’t expect a joy ride because the lid is blowing off. The west turned a blind eye, but the report was prophetic, with key evidence. Societies are frozen in time. No one should have any illusions. Root for the return to history, but not in the middle.*
Which brought to mind this memorably representative passage from Maureen Dowd:
Mr. Obama called W. on Friday to give him a heads-up about the repudiation on Iraq. Robert Gibbs said the call was not at all contentious. But in the Lehrer interview, the president compared America to a big tanker that needed to "start moving in a better trajectory so that five years, 10 years down the road you can say, you know what, because of good decisions now our kids are safer, more secure, more prosperous, more unified than they were before." This analogy turns W. into the Exxon Valdez.
Dowd's attempts at analogies often go something like that, a collection of elements vaguely related to the topic at hand but without analogous relationships (like when she called Joe Biden a human lie detector because he compulsively told the truth). You could make an analogy where Bush was Captain Hazelwood or the U.S. under Bush was the Valdez, but what you have here isn't an analogy; it's just word association.

The sad part is that Dowd's plum position is based on her writing and analytic abilities. Unlike Friedman, and, for that matter, Brooks and Krugman (both of whom can actually write), Dowd brings no special expertise to her columns. All she offers are her prose and her insights, both of which are terrible. And yet the halo effect of the New York Times was strong enough to pull in a Pulitzer.

And the really sad part is that both Friedman and Dowd are better than John Tierney.

* To be fair, Friedman's main points are quite a bit better than his prose.

"Just around the corner" for about a century

The rate of technological progress is an incredibly complex subject and is open to interpretation depending on how you define your terms and weight your metrics. I see a huge surge starting around the 1870s and running more or less uninterrupted* through the 1960s followed by a perhaps inevitable leveling off to a more sustainable rate in the past few decades but I've heard well-reasoned arguments that paint a completely different picture.

Having acknowledged this diversity of opinion, there's still a wonderful irony to using a video phones to counter the argument that technology isn't delivering what was promised because we were promised video phones for an awfully long time. As early as 1891, Alexander Graham Bell was thinking seriously about the subject:
"Should it be found... [that the image sensor] is illuminated, then an apparatus might be constructed in which each piece of selenium is a mere speck, like the head of a small pin, the smaller the better. The darkened selenium should be placed in a cup-like receiver which can fit over the eye… Then, when the first selenium speck is presented to an illuminated object, it may be possible that the eye in the darkened receiver, should perceive, not merely light, but an image of the object… "
By 1930, AT&T was testing prototypes. By 1936, the German postal service had a public video phone service available. Research into wireless systems was going on at the same time.

And through all this, for about a hundred years, there was a constant stream of stories in newspapers and magazines like Popular Science announcing that it wouldn't be long before every home had a video phone. Young boys and girls who grew up reading these stories died of old age reading the same headlines. Given this history, it's difficult to be that impressed by the rate of innovation.

I would argue that for the past few decades, most areas of technology have advanced at about the rate we expected with more areas under-performing than exceeding expectations. There are any number good arguments to the contrary, but none of them use the video phone as an example.

p.s. I don't think great-granddad would be all that dazzled by texting either.

* I'm not sure about the Thirties. Does anyone have any thoughts on the effects of the Great Depression on technology?

"Don't worry, honey, the other children won't judge you on your looks."

Joseph recently brought up the subject of separated-twin studies. Let's take things to the next level with a thought experiment using clones. We'll have to go full-bore mad scientist mode here and assume we have exclusive access not only to an unlimited supply of clones but to undetectable plastic surgery techniques that can be performed without the subject's knowledge.

From early childhood, we assign different treatment combinations to different groups of our genetically identical subjects. We adjust features to match those that tend to elicit strong responses in terms of attractiveness, intelligence, likeability, and other traits. We modify height and body type, again making sure to cover the extremes. We even determine vocal characteristics.

After about thirty years of this, we assess the subjects using a variety of personal, professional, and academic metrics, the same sort of metrics often used in twin studies.

Now we come to the big question, are you willing bet a sizeable amount of money that none of these treatments are significant? If the answer is no, you shouldn't put a lot of faith in twin studies that measure these same factors because these studies never control for appearance.

How we look does not determine who we are but it does have a big impact on the life that we lead. It makes people more or less likely to want to hang out with us (particularly if those people see us as potential mates). Through the halo effect it affects people's opinion of us (including opinions in the form of grades and professional evaluations). Perhaps most importantly, it changes the way we see ourselves.

Separated twin studies have often been held up as a gold standard. Pyrite might be a more apt description. The data are invariably confounded in numerous ways that are difficult to correct for. In addition to the factors mentioned above, twins (barring surrogacy) share a prenatal background, the same relative age compared to their classmates and the same absolute age. You could easily find yourself comparing a pair of twins who suffered from mild FAS, were the youngest students in their classes, and were born in 1960 against a pair of twins who had excellent prenatal care, were the oldest in their classes and who were born in 1950.

Twins can be incredibly useful as test subjects, but the popular notion that these separated twin studies provide clean, unambiguous findings is simply wrong. Every one of them has serious problems with confounded data and these problems hold even for perfect studies with twins separated at birth, randomly assigned to adoptive parents and kept isolated from each other (conditions that aren't met that often). Personally, I have trouble overlooking all these concerns and putting a lot of weight into these findings, but, of course, I didn't inherit a trusting nature.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Goodbye little buddy

This is a cat named Turtle, who will be sorely missed by his adoptive parents. He had a unique ability to express himself and has left a Turtle sized hole the lives of all who knew him. Rest in peace, little buddy.

"Especially when it’s done wrong"

Felix Salmon has another intriguing (and, more to the point, important) post on saving and investing based on this (also intriguing and important) paper by Wade Pfau on saving and investing. I won't try to summarize but I have to quote this one paragraph.
Investing can be exciting, especially when it’s done wrong. You follow the markets rising and falling, you obsess about your retirement-fund balance, you rotate out of this and into that, you read books and magazines and blogs to try to learn more about what to do. You might even, in a moment of weakness, find yourself watching CNBC. Budgeting, by contrast, is like going on a diet: it’s a drag, and it’s hard to get any pleasure or excitement out of it. But the latter is much more likely to get you well-set in retirement than the former.

There is no market solution to the blankonomics problem

And obviously God has not listened to our prayers to end the plague:

Spousanomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes

From Yahoo's Shine:
Splitting the dishes, laundry, vacuuming, and other household chores may seem fair, but an unbending line right down the middle can lead to more friction, not less, because no one is good and fast at all things. But when couples adopt the economic principle of “comparative advantage,” which says it’s not efficient to take on every task you’re good at, only the ones you are relatively better at, couples can gain time for the things they really want to do, the authors write.

“In economics, having the comparative advantage in something means you produce it at a lower cost and really quickly,”* Paula Szuchman said in an interview with Yahoo! Shine. So if one of you is better at laundry, then do it. And if the other can do the dishes and clean up the kitchen faster every night, while the better cook cooks, go for it.

The authors, both accomplished journalists (Szuchman: Wall Street Journal and Anderson: New York Times, where she spent years covering Wall Street and delivered award-winning coverage of Merrill Lynch) decided the time was right for an economics-approach how-to for a successful union for a few reasons. One was a pretty tough first year of marriage for Szuchman, who was surprised it was harder than she thought to merge two lives and that “something as banal as housework could get in the way” of all the fun she heard people were having being married. Another was the prevalence of economic terms suddenly in the national lexicon at the time of the financial meltdown. All at once, terms like “moral hazard” and “loss aversion” were all over the news to help explain a seemingly unexplainable economic freefall. “There seemed to be some useful parallels,” Szuchman said.
If you can get beyond the incredibly annoying title (and I can think of no reason you should), the fundamental analogy is still fatally flawed. Economic approaches tend to be reductionist; they work best on problems with clearly defined objectives and components that can easily and accurately be assigned scalar metrics (problems distinctly unlike those involving relationships).

If the purpose of a marriage were to optimize the completion of chores, the authors might be on to something other than a band wagon here, but, of course, that's not why people enter into the institution. This is not to say that things like chores can't have a major impact on a relationship or even that the advice the authors give about dividing up chores based on competence is necessarily bad, but that even if the authors are right here, they are still using a terrible model.

A flawed model may occasionally, simply by accident, lead to an accurate prediction, but so can guessing and in one important way guessing is far superior. The model brings with it a sense of rigor and reliability, of intellectual seriousness. With a guess you know what you're getting.

* Maybe an economist out there can help me out. This sounds like absolute advantage -- "I can do A better than you." I thought comparative advantage was something like this "I can do A better than B and better than you can do A (or at least more profitably). Your B is as good or better than your A (though possibly not as good as my B). I should focus on A (because of the opportunity costs of B) and you should focus on B."

Anyone care to clear this up?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Environment is complex

Via Tyler Cowen:

A case in point is provided by the recent study of regular tobacco use among SATSA's twins (24). Heritability was estimated as 60% for men, only 20% for women. Separate analyses were then performed for three distinct age cohorts. For men, the heritability estimates were nearly identical for each cohort. But for women, heritability increased from zero for those born between 1910 and 1924, to 21% for those in the 1925-39 birth cohort, to 64% for the 1940-58 cohort. The authors suggested that the most plausible explanation for this finding was that "a reduction in the social restrictions on smoking in women in Sweden as the 20th century progressed permitted genetic factors increasing the risk for regular tobacco use to express themselves." If purportedly genetic factors can be so readily suppressed by social restrictions, one must ask the question, "For what conceivable purpose is the phenotypic variance being allocated?" This question is not addressed seriously by MISTRA or SATSA. The numbers, and the associated modeling, appear to be ends in themselves.

The idea that culture, itself, is an environmental exposure does shed some serious doubt on twin studies as the gold standard to separate genetic and environmental influences on phenotypes. Tyler Cowen says it well here:

"Culture" and "genes" are two major factors determining individual outcomes, toss in parenting, and if you wish call parenting and culture two parts of "environment." It is obvious that culture matters a great deal, and this comes from knowledge which existed prior to rigorous behavioral genetic studies.

I say "soda" and people in Nebraska say "pop." Singapore vs. southern China. German musical tastes in 1780 vs. today. Rural Africa vs. urban Africa. Most concretely, if I meet someone I want to know what country he came from and grew up in; in fact that is the first thing I wish to know. "The culture word" may be overused and abused, but still the power of culture is evident.

I think that we should think carefully about how quick we are to ascribe behaviors to genetics (once we account for within culture variability) without considering between culture variability. Even worse, it is not clear that the modern world has a sufficient degree of cultural variation (given our connectivity in the modern world) to even measure this parameter properly.

Mark also has another insight as to a limitation of twin studies that I hope he posts at some point.

A nice comment on investment strategies

James Joyner:

Aside from diversifying one’s portfolio over both time and scope of investments, there’s no great option. As I recently told an investment counselor who was encouraging me to move investments from one fund to a one that “would have a higher rate of growth,” if she really had the ability to accurately predict which stocks would go up, she wouldn’t need to be advising clients for a living. Anyone who claims to know what the market is going to do over the long term is an idiot or a liar.

I think that this comment is right on. I always get worried with investment professionals (who gets paid based on a percentage of your portfolio and not based on how it performs) giving advice on very specific investment options. Diversification and dollar cost averaging are the only elements that really seem to be under my control. Otherwise, as Mark says, focusing on savings is your best option to control your ability to retire.

The unreliable magic of compound interest

Felix Salmon has been doing remarkably good work recently but this column stood out as particularly relevant:

My point is that the range of remotely sensible investment strategies for a working person is actually pretty narrow. You can’t just wave a magic asset-allocation wand and change your annualized return over a period of 35 years by 300 basis points. Frankly, you’d be doing well if you could improve it by 30 basis points. The market will return whatever the market will return and you will do a little bit worse than that, most likely.

So the way to have a comfortable retirement is not to think that by making a clever choice when it comes to stock-picking or investment strategy that you can somehow make up for the money you’re spending rather than saving. Instead, it’s to diligently save as much as you can, from as early an age as possible and simply invest it in a non-idiotic manner. The more you save, especially in your 20s and 30s, the more you’ll end up with in retirement.

Wall Street would love us to believe that the magic of compound interest gives us a free lunch; that a small amount of savings, if compounded at a high enough rate, can set us up for life. That might be true mathematically, but saving doesn’t work that way in the real world. Interest rates are low, now, and wages are growing sluggishly.

The three big drivers of big retirement accounts — sharply rising salaries, sharply rising house prices and a sharply rising stock market — are all looking very uncertain these days. So let’s not perpetuate this pipe dream that if only we can get an 8% return on our funds, everything will be fine. Because chances are we won’t. Absent that 8% return, the only way of getting to where we want to be is to simply spend less and save more.

There are two factors here: how much you save and how effectively you manage that savings. An entire industry has grown up around the second, usually based on appallingly optimistic estimates, often bordering on the fraudulent.

These financial gurus have done their best to popularize the idea that a good investment strategy was more important than how much money you put away and they've tried their hardest to avoid the unpalatable truth that there is only one aspect of our financial futures we have any real control over. Most of us can't really choose how much we'll make and we certainly can't control the performance of the market but we can decide how much of our disposable income to spend.

Spend less, save more, and ignore everything you hear on CNBC.

Another note on Herman Mankiewicz, Peter Bogdanovich, and the definition of 'hack'

Following up on an earlier topic, I had known that Herman Mankiewicz had worked on the Wizard of Oz, but I had left it out of this post because I assumed his contribution was insignificant. Then I came across this:
In February, 1938, he was assigned as the first of ten screenwriters to work on The Wizard of Oz. Three days after he started writing he handed in a seventeen-page treatment of what was later known as "the Kansas sequence". While Baum devoted less than a thousand words in his book to Kansas, Mankiewicz almost balanced the attention on Kansas to the section about Oz. He felt it was necessary to have the audience relate to Dorothy in a real world before transporting her to a magic one. By the end of the week he had finished writing fifty-six pages of the script and included instructions to film the scenes in Kansas in black and white. His goal, according to film historian Aljean Harmetz, was to "to capture in pictures what Baum had captured in words--the grey lifelessness of Kansas contrasted with the visual richness of Oz." He was not credited for his work on the film, however.
Aljean Harmetz certainly knows what she's talking about and, if she's quoted accurately, this would require an awfully broad definition of 'hack.'

Sunday, February 20, 2011

If you don't post it someone else will

I was planning to do a post on these comments by Edward Glaeser, but I decided to put it off because:

a) Joseph told me he was reading the book and could give me a better assessment of how the ideas held up;

b) I'd recently criticized Glaeser at some length;

c) I had about a dozen other posts I wanted to do.

One of the comments that annoyed me was Glaeser's comparison of public schools and restaurants, now Dominik Lukeš has spent two thousand plus words taking the analogy apart stone by stone and salting the ground. If you're in the mood for a good dismantling and salting you should definitely follow the link.

Weekend Gaming -- Quickie book review edition

The world is too much with me this weekend, at least too much for adequate posting, but here are a couple of books to keep the board gamers out there busy for the next year or so.

The first is a Gamut of Games by the legendary game historian, designer and collector, Sid Sackson. As Wikipedia puts it:
Many of the games in the book had never before been published. It is considered by many to be an essential text for anyone interested in abstract strategy games, and a number of the rules were later expanded into full-fledged published board games.
If Sackson isn't enough for you, there's always David Parlett's comprehensive Oxford History of Board Games. Parlett is also a distinguished game designer, having won the Spiel des Jahres award (which is a big deal for people who follow this sort of thing). When I was designing games, I had a rule: if Parlett didn't have a similar game, I could call an idea original.

I'll have an actual game next week.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Social Security

Some thoughts on social security:

First, let's remember that Social Security actually provides support at a very modest level. Last year, the average retirement benefit was $1,170 a month, or about $14,000 a year, with the average disabled worker or widow receiving slightly less. (It would be wonderfully educational for the cable talkers and newspaper editorialists to live on that amount for a few months — they would not only lose weight but gain empathy.)
Remember, too, that despite our status as the largest and most productive economy in the world, Social Security is among the least generous retirement programs among all the developed nations. As a percentage of the average worker's pre-retirement wages, the benefit has been declining for years and will continue to fall without any further cutbacks.


The actuarial experts whose job is to monitor Social Security's fortunes have long assured us that small and gradual rises in the tax revenues that support Social Security, accompanied by small and gradual shifts in benefits over the coming years, will solve whatever fiscal challenges the program may eventually confront. There is no reason to panic, and there is certainly no reason to consider wholesale changes in benefits.

Well, there is a reason, but only if your real aim is to destroy the system and replace it with something less useful but more profitable. Wall Street and its servants on Capitol Hill have lusted after Social Security's revenues for many years. And they regard the current uproar over the budget as a fresh opportunity to get their hands on a trillion-dollar bonanza. Given their record in recent years, it is all too easy to imagine how badly that would work out for everybody — except them, of course.

I think that this is precisely correct. The amount of profit that could be derived from the privatization of social security is astounding and I think that it is the real reason that the program is always under attack. Consider this:

But Fred Reish, an employee benefits lawyer, says it is not uncommon for fees on a small 401(k) plan to break down like this: 0.25% a year for the plan adviser, 0.25% a year for the record keeper and 0.75% a year for mutual funds, totaling 1.25%.

Note that this is in addition to the fees charged by mutual funds that most 401k plans allow you to invest in. The average equity mutual fund charges around 1.3%-1.5% The real rate of return on the United States stock market is typically between six and seven percent; likely less under current market conditions. It is easily to imagine half of a person's returns being eaten up by fees (which is a very good deal for people who run retirement funds).

So it is worth keeping in mind that attacks on Social Security, as a program, seem to mostly revolve around attempts to create new markets for investment bankers. In terms of actual budget issues, Paul Krugman puts it best:

What would a serious approach to our fiscal problems involve? I can summarize it in seven words: health care, health care, health care, revenue.

I just wish we would see more of this sort of sanity in the discourse about government fiscal problems.

EDIT: See also; most interesting quote:

Recently, Vanguard has begun urging people to contribute 12% to 15%, including the employer contribution, because of the stock market's weak returns and uncertainty about the future of Social Security and Medicare.

But the article is interesting throughout.

Edward Glaeser

Two quotes from the first chapter of his new book, triumph of the city:

All of the world's older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting things as they are or by mindlessly relying on the free market.


Infrastructure eventually becomes obselete, but education perpetuates itself as one smart generation teaches the next.

so far the book itself is beating my expectations based on his recent articles. Already there is a strong theme of needing to consider group interests relative to individual interests (and the collective action problems that result when you do not properrly regulate a city). We'll see if the rest of the book holds up or not.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Zonkers and millionaires

Partially making up for recent indiscretions, Paul Krugman gives us a wonderful analogy for proposals that leave out the hard part:
When I was in college, we sat around eating, among other things, Screaming Yellow Zonkers; they weren’t especially tasty, but the copy on the boxes was fun. Among the instruction was the Disappearing Zonkers Trick:

After putting on your magician’s outfit, look around the house for a handkerchief, two hard boiled eggs, and a small piece of radium. Then take seven Zonkers and place them neatly into the exact center of the handkerchief. Two eggs are arranged near each other and under your hands. Tie a half-hitch knot in the radium. Then make the seven Zonkers disappear. Your friends will be amazed.

It occurred to me that this is a pretty good description of the Ryan Roadmap plan for controlling health care costs — make a lot of proclamations about responsibility, dress up in a reformer’s costume, then make cost growth disappear.

How to lie with statistics -- rare cinema history edition

From David Leonhardt (via DeLong):
When I read that John Boehner, the speaker of the House, had said that the federal government added 200,000 federal workers under President Obama, I wondered, “Really? Where?” I’m not aware of any major federal hiring initiatives since January 2009.

... It turns out that the 200,000 number is simply incorrect.


Second, Mr. Boehner was starting his clock in December 2008, the month before Mr. Obama became president. The Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts its monthly survey during the week that contains the 12th day of each month, so there is no reason to start the clock in December 2008 as opposed to January 2009. On Jan. 12, 2009, George W. Bush was still president.
To be more accurate there wasn't an honest reason. As Leonhardt points out later, 11,000 jobs were added by President Bush in his last month in office. Speaker Boehner was interval shopping, one of the most effective and time-honored methods of lying with statistics. (Given that, by Leonhardt's estimate, Boehner went from 57,000 actual jobs to a claim of 200,000, he used lots of effective and time-honored methods of lying with statistics.)

Interval shopping is based on the idea that if you can adjust the period being studied, you can make something look much better or worse than it actually is. For example, if you take one day off of the service record of the Titanic, it looks like a remarkably safe form of transportation.

The method also allows you to have a great deal of fun with denominators. You will often see people in positions of responsibility pointing to a period of growth that started just after a disastrous collapse and ends just before the next one. The worse that initial collapse was, the better your growth rate looks.

Interval shopping can be particularly effective when the groups being compared are at different stages of life. You can, for example, use it to argue that a product is less reliable than one that was introduced a couple of years later, not taking into account the difference in average ages, or you could 'prove' the mental inferiority of one immigrant group over another by comparing test scores, not taking into account the higher proportion of non-English-speaking first generation immigrants.

For beautiful example of egregious interval shopping, check out this excerpt from a rebuttal to Gore Vidal written by Peter Bogdanovich in the New York Review of Books:
Now I’m getting in a foul mood because I’m reading this sentence again: “The badness of so many of Orson Welles’s post-Mankiewicz films ought to be instructive.” That’s another of those glib, sweeping statements that play right into the reader’s lack of information and is written so as to presume a general critical atmosphere, which in this case is not just superficial, it is decidedly untrue, which makes it all the more offensive and irresponsible on Gore’s part. Almost everyone with any sense knows that Orson Welles is a great director and that Herman Mankiewicz was a talented hack,* but for the record, here is a list of the movies Orson Welles has directed since Citizen Kane:

The Magnificent Ambersons

The Stranger

The Lady from Shanghai



Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report)

Touch of Evil

The Trial

Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff)

The Immortal Story

F for Fake

And these are all of Herman Mankiewicz’s post-Welles films:

Rise and Shine

Pride of the Yankees

Stand by for Action

Christmas Holiday

The Enchanted Cottage

The Spanish Main

A Woman’s Secret

The Pride of St. Louis

One of the surest signs of interval shopping is the arbitrary start point, but the key to making it work is finding an arbitrary point that doesn't look arbitrary. Here Bogdanovich is able to make use of a sloppy writing by Vidal. The phrase "post-Mankiewicz" implies that there is some special significance to these films coming after Citizen Kane. If Vidal were comparing Welles' post-Mankiewicz films to his pre-Mankiewicz films (which he obviously isn't), or if he were arguing that Welles was changed by working with Mankiewicz (which seems unlikely, though I'd need to get behind the paywall to be sure), then the wording would have been appropriate. Here, though, we simply have Vidal saying "post-Mankiewicz" when he means "non-Mankiewicz."

This small bit of imprecision on Vidal's part gives Bogdanovich the opportunity to use Kane as the start point for his interval (and Peter Bogdanovich has never been one to pass up on opportunity). When comparing careers you would normally look at entire careers. This interval includes all of Welles' films and less than half of Mankiewicz's.

To make matters worse, the intervals aren't even close to the same length for the two men. Mankiewicz drank himself to death in 1953. Welles died in 1985 (the last film on Bogdanovich's list was released in 1974).

More importantly, though, this list includes all of Orson Welles' career as a director barring some shorts and TV work, while it leaves out most of Mankiewicz's major accomplishments as a writer and producer. Even in his final, declining, alcohol-soaked years, Mankiewicz still managed a good picture or two, but a list of films that he wrote or produced before Kane would include Dinner at Eight, Million Dollar Legs (with W.C. Fields) and three out of four of the Marx Brothers' best movies Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup.

And when you leave out Duck Soup, that's just going too far.

*Bogdanovich's senseless group here include Mankiewicz collaborators and admirers such as Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Dorothy Parker, Robert E. Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Marc Connelly and Nunnally Johnson, but that's a topic for another post and perhaps another blog.

Update: The conversation continues here and here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An excuse to pull out my favorite John Ford quote

It's not often you have to correct Roger Ebert on film history, but his recent retrospective on the Grapes of Wrath opens with a statement that definitely needs correcting:

John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" is a left-wing parable, directed by a right-wing American director, about how a sharecropper's son, a barroom brawler, is converted into a union organizer.

It's true that Ford became more identified with the GOP in the late Forties (calling himself a 'Maine Republican') and turned sharply to the right in the mid-Sixties (around the time he turned seventy), but up until that sharp turn he had been a progressive (even afterwards his favorite presidents were FDR and JFK) and he was an ardent FDR man when he made Grapes of Wrath in 1940. He held to these basic principles even when they entailed significant professional risk in the Fifties.

From Wikipedia:

Ford's attitude to McCarthyism in Hollywood is expressed by a story told by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. A faction of the Directors Guild of America led by Cecil B. DeMille had tried to make it mandatory for every member to sign a loyalty oath. A whispering campaign was being conducted against Mankiewicz, then President of the Guild, alleging he had communist sympathies. At a crucial meeting of the Guild, DeMille's faction spoke for four hours until Ford spoke against DeMille and proposed a vote of confidence in Mankiewicz, which was passed. His words were recorded by a court stenographer:

"My name's John Ford. I make Westerns. I don't think there's anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille — and he certainly knows how to give it to them.... [looking at DeMille] But I don't like you, C.B. I don't like what you stand for and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight."[77]

Having made fun of Paul Krugman's puns, there's no way I can use the title "Darby's Rhee Lapse"

From the New Republic's Seyward Darby:
The mantra goes, “You either love or hate Michelle Rhee.” In the education world, there is no figure as polarizing as the former chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public schools, who famously warred with the city’s teachers’ union and left abruptly when her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost reelection last year. Since then, she has started an organization called StudentsFirst to push for education reform nationwide. She announced the group in a Newsweek cover story, and it raised more than $700,000 in its first week. Andrew Rotherham, an education policy expert, told me, “Do people say, ‘I [am] kind of uncertain about Michelle Rhee’? No way.”

Count me, then, as one of the uncertain few. To be sure, I am generally a fan of Rhee. The world of liberal education policy consists, more or less, of two factions: reformers, who support performance pay, charter schools, and weakening seniority-based job protections for teachers; and opponents of these ideas, who are often allied with teachers’ unions. Like most reformers, I greatly admired Rhee’s tenure in D.C., in which she closed failing schools, fired underperforming teachers, and helped raise student achievement.

But, in reading about Rhee’s recent moves, I’ve felt a nagging sense of disappointment. She is now advising several conservative governors who line up with reformers on certain issues but whose commitment to public education is questionable. Meanwhile, she hasn’t offered robust answers to some of the thorniest matters facing education policymakers. Last week, I put these challenges to Rhee directly. And I came out of our conversation much as I went in: with decidedly mixed feelings about her vision for the education-reform movement.
I have long had decidedly mixed feeling about Seyward Darby (as you can see for yourself with a quick keyword search). Her reporting and analysis of the education reform movement has been, to put it simply, bad (better than Chait's but still bad). She was overly eager to accept the movement's preferred narrative, credulous about its claims, negligent about digging into the research that called these claims into question, and dismissive of those on the other side.

That last trait is still on display even now with the weasel-worded "more or less, of two factions... opponents of these ideas, who are often allied with teachers’ unions." The implication here is that the opponents are shilling for the unions. I don't know the alliances of everyone out there but I can tell you that I'm not allied with the unions (I never even bothered to join one when I was a teacher), nor is Joseph, nor is David Warsh, nor, to my knowledge are most of the people in my corner of the blogosphere. In my experience, it would have been more accurate to say "opponents who question the evidence presented by the reformers."

But there was no question in my mind that Darby is an intelligent, competent and basically honest journalist and that eventually the internal contradictions would start to get to her. One of the ways that people deal with cognitive dissonance is by convincing themselves that things have changed. Rather than question their original assessment and reaction, they convince themselves that they were right then but they are taking the opposite position now because things are different.

Michelle Rhee hasn't changed. She is constant as the northern star. Every point on her career trajectory is collinear. Those who didn't see her current incarnation coming either weren't paying attention or weren't being honest with themselves.

The rest of Darby's article is behind a paywall and I haven't had a chance to look at it. Perhaps something in the piece will invalidate something I've said here. If so let me know and I'll gladly make the appropriate retractions.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Paul Krugman still has no shame

An Asterix the Gaul pun? Has it really come to that?

(this is not a first offense)

Words of Wisdom

From the ever brilliant Felix Salmon:

The more important answer is “I’m not an investor” — and neither are you. Just because you have a 401k plan does not, ipso facto, make you an investor. This is a serious problem with defined-contribution pensions in general: they place an onerous set of responsibilities onto individuals who are wholly unqualified to discharge them in a sensible manner. Already, such plans tend to have far too many choices, many of which are expensive long-only mutual funds which seem like a pretty bad idea for just about anybody. Trying to add alternative investments in private equity or hedge funds to the mix would almost certainly be disastrous — the dumb money coming in at just the wrong time, just like it always does.

I always kind of worry paying a management fee for investing in TIPS (i.e. my retirement fund does not let me buy individual bonds). The yield on these bonds is already pretty low and paying a percentage of assets in order to invest in this instrument makes it a far less efficient vehicle for investment. But it's also true that I have neither the expertise nor the information network to invest intelligently (beyond some basic, general principles) in the general market.

I always find it odd that the employer (who does not directly benefit from the results of the investment) picks the funds that are available. Market forces only work well when the customer (in this case the individual employee) is able to make free choices. But, unfortunately, the lack of information makes it impossible for the average employee to know if they are getting a good return.

So, in the end, only the fund managers really seem to benefit from this arrangement.

Easily worth a thousand words... Maybe even fifteen hundred

From Mark Thoma.

Forget Jeopardy, show me a computer that can play Eleusis

The odd thing about the much publicized Jeopardy match between humans and IBM's Watson is how differently both sides are challenged by the game. Arguably the hardest part for the human players, acquiring and retaining information, is trivial for the computer while certainly the hardest part for Watson, understanding everyday human language, is something almost all of us master as young children.

Natural language processing continues to chug along at a respectable pace. Things like Watson and even Google Translate represent remarkable advances. Still, they hardly seem like amazing advances in artificial intelligence. I'm not going to worry about the rise of the machines until they start beating us at games like Robert Abbott's Eleusis.

Abbott's game (old Eleusis -- you can buy a booklet of rules for the updated game from Mr. Abbott himself) made its national début in the Second Scientific American Book of Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions by Martin Gardner. It's easy to play but a bit complicated to score (not unnecessarily complicated -- there's a real flash of insight behind the process).

The dealer (sometimes referred to as 'Nature' or 'God' for what will be obvious reasons) writes a rule like "If the card on top is red, play a black card. If the card on top is is black, then play a red card." on a piece of paper then folds it and puts it away. The dealer then shuffles the deck, randomly selects a card, puts it face up in the center of the table then deals out the rest evenly to the players (the dealer doesn't get a hand). If the number of cards isn't divisible by the number of players the extra cards are put aside.

The first player selects any card from his or her hand and puts it on top of the starter card. Based on the hidden rule, the dealer says 'right' and the card stays on the pile or says 'wrong' and the card (called a mistake card) goes face up in front of the player. The players continue in turn

The object for players is to have as few mistake cards as possible. The object for the dealer is to have the largest possible range in players' scores.

At the end of the first hand, the score is calculated for the dealer. The scoring method is clever but a bit complicated. For n players (excluding the dealer), have each player count his or her mistake cards then multiply the smallest number by n-1 and subtract the product from the total number of mistake cards in front of the other players. For example, if there were four players with 7, 2, 9 and 8 mistake cards, you would multiply 2 (the lowest) times 3 (n-1) and subtract that from 24 (the sum of the rest).

In the second stage, the players take turns selecting cards from their mistake pile (leaving them face up so that other players can see what has been rejected). Play continues until someone goes out or until the dealer sees that no more cards can be accepted. At that point the rule is revealed.

Players' score are then calculated with a formula similar to the one used for the dealer: each player multiplies his or her mistake cards by n-1 then subtracts the product from the total of the other players' mistake cards. If the difference is negative, the score is zero. The player who goes out first or who has the fewest cards if no one goes out gets an additional six points.

While most 'new' games are actually collections of old ideas with new packaging, Abbott managed to come up with two genuinely innovative ideas for Eleusis: the use of induction and the scoring of the dealer. As someone who has spent a lot of time studying games, I may be even more impressed with the second. One of the fundamental challenges of game design is coming up with rules that encourage strategies that make the game more enjoyable for all the players. In this case, that means giving the dealer an incentive to come up with rules that are both challenging enough to stump some of the players and simple enough that someone will spot the pattern.

Eleusis has often been used as a tool for teaching the scientific method. You recognize a pattern, form a hypothesis, and test it. Gardner discusses this analogy at length. At one point, he even brings William James and John Dewey into the conversation.

The New York Times said that Robert Abbott's games were "for lovers of the unfamiliar challenge." Any AI people out there up to that challenge?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Notice anything funny?

Felix Salmon makes the catch.

Hint: always check out the x-axis.

"Looking under the lamp post"

People are hard-wired for convergent behavior. We instinctively imitate, we constantly reset our social norms and we love to feel included. One of the best ways to achieve this feeling of inclusion is to talk about what everyone else is talking about.

When you combine this natural desire to join the conversation with the constant pressure on journalists to come up with an angle for every story, the result is a natural tendency to converge on a standard narrative, particularly if this narrative plays off another hot topic.

Case in point, the recent events in Egypt have been repeatedly described using social networks and references to Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter. The phrase 'egypt "revolution 2.0"' produces almost ninety thousand results (If you hear the term 'two point oh' to describe non-sarcastically anything other than a new product release, you can be pretty sure the speaker is trying to feel included).

But did revolutionaries friending each other and texting on their cell phones really contribute to the fall of the government? According to this excellent post over at Whimsley (via Thoma, of course), the answer is yes, but not as much as you might think.

The easiest people to talk to

Most obviously, it is much easier to talk to English speaking participants than non-English speakers. English speakers are far more likely to be part of the one-fifth or so of the country that has access to the Internet. (World Bank Development Indicators). And it is easy to contact people over the Internet, so we hear from people who are on the Internet. It is easy to follow Twitter feeds, so we hear Egyptian tweets.

The easiest story to tell

It isn't just the sources, though. The Facebook Revolution narrative is an interesting story to tell to a contemporary Western audience. For us, a story built around the familiar yet novel world of Facebook and social media is an easy way into the Egyptian rebellion. How many of us know much about the specifics of Egypt's history, its recent past, or the economic sources of discontent? It is a much quicker and lighter story to say "look at the Facebook page." We can even go and look at it ourselves (>>). Talking about strikes is more likely to lose an audience.

So every time prominent activist Wael Ghonim is mentioned, he is described as a "Google executive Wael Ghonim" even though he has explicitly said that "Google has nothing to do with this" (>>). Do we hear the employer of any of the other leaders? April 6 Movement founders Asmaa Mahfouz, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Salah are commonly described as "activists". It is possible to track down Maher's occupation as a "civil engineer", but with no employer. The discrepancy is glaring, and so Google gets to be associated with the uprising, adding to the digital tone of the story.

Underreported players

As people look back for the roots of the rebellion, the April 6 Movement and the We Are Khaled Said Facebook page have received much of the attention. But there are other strands that fed into the protests. The April 6 Movement was created to commemorate an industrial strike, after all, at a textile factory. There have been more than 3,000 separate labour protests in Egypt since 2004 according to a report by the AFL-CIO. The Kefaya movement is considered by some experts to be a central organizer of the January 25 protests, along with Mohamed ElBaradei's organization (two-minute video with Samer Shehata).

An interesting perspective

Matt Yglesias makes a good point:

And on the politics, it’s a mess. Right now we have conservatives simultaneously calling for huge spending cuts and also getting the line’s share of old people’s votes even while the vast majority of non-security spending is on old people. In essence, by first separating the domestic budget into “discretionary” and “entitlement” portions and then dividing the entitlement programs up into “what today’s old people get” versus “what tomorrow’s old people will get” the political class has created a large and vociferously right-wing class of people who are completely immune from the impact of their own calls for fiscal austerity. In my view, that reality is the biggest driver of our current political dysfunction.

I had not thought about things like this but it is a really good point. I dislike the idea of revising benefit levels because people plan their lives around these benefits and it seems unfair to change things mid-stream.

However, I had completely overlooked the political point involved. Social Security, Medicare and CHIP are 41% of the budget. Veterns and retirees are another 7%. This makes about half of the budget being focused on people over 55/60 years of age.

So I think I agree that this is a better point than the moral one. The conversation about the budget becomes a lot more sane if there is not a "protected class" of citizens. It's not a conclusion I like but I think it might be correct.

"Human see; human do."

There was a fascinating interview on NPR's Fresh Air earlier today. I particularly enjoyed this section:
If you're just joining us, we're speaking with V.S. Ramachandran. He is a behavioral neurologist and author of the new book "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neural Scientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human."

You write a lot about mirror neurons and the role that they played on our evolution. You want to just tell us a little bit about that?

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Well, mirror neurons were not discovered by us, obviously. They were discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti in Parma, Italy, and his colleagues. And what they refer to is in the front of the brain, the motor and pre-motor cortex, there are neurons that issue commands to your hands and other parts of your body to perform specific actions, semi-skilled actions, skilled actions or even non-skilled actions. So these are motor-command neurons which orchestrate specific sequence of muscle twitches for you to reach out and grab a peanut, for example, or put it in your mouth.

What Rizzolatti and his colleagues found was some of these neurons, as many as 20 percent or 30 percent, will fire not only when - let's say I'm measuring mirror neuron activity in your brain. So when you reach for a peanut, these neurons fire. But the astonishing thing is these neurons will also fire when you watch me reaching for a peanut so these are promptly dubbed mirror neurons for obvious reasons. So it's as though your brain is performing a virtual reality simulation of what's going on in my brain, saying, hey, the same neuron is firing now when he's doing that as would fire when I reach out and grab a peanut, therefore, that's what that guy's up to.

He's about to reach out and grab a peanut. So it's a mind-reading neuron. It's essential for you seeing other people as intentional beings who are about to perform certain specific intended actions.

DAVIES: And that might have helped us learn from one another and thereby advanced culturally far beyond our...

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: That's correct. That's the stuff - that's kind of an obvious behind-site, but that's the claim I made, oh, about 10 years ago in a website run by Brockman called "Edge." And what I pointed out was - and others have pointed this out, too, is that mirror neurons obviously are required for imitation and emulation. So if I want to do something complicated that you're doing and I want to imitate it, I have to put myself in your shoes and view the world from your standpoint. And this is extremely important.

It seems like something trivial, you know, mimicry, but it's not. It's extremely important because imitation is vital for certain types of learning, rudimentary types of learning. These days you learn from books and other things, but in the early, early days when hominids were evolving, we learned largely from imitation. And there's a tremendous acceleration of evolution illusionary process. What I'm saying is maybe there are some outliers in the population who are especially smart simply because of genetic variation, who have stumbled, say, accidentally on an invention, like fire or skinning a bear.

Without the mirror neuron system being sophisticated, it would have died out, fizzled out immediately. But with a sophisticated mirror neuron system, your offsprings can learn that technique by imitation so it spreads like wild fire horizontally across a population and vertically across generations. And that's the dawn of what we call culture and therefore, of civilization.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Google can make you disappear

The SEO's may have it coming but this is still creepy:

Interviewing a purveyor of black-hat services face-to-face was a considerable undertaking. They are a low-profile bunch. But a link-selling specialist named Mark Stevens — who says he had nothing to do with the Penney link effort — agreed to chat. He did so on the condition that his company not be named, a precaution he justified by recounting what happened when the company apparently angered Google a few months ago.

“It was my fault,” Mr. Stevens said. “I posted a job opening on a Stanford Engineering alumni mailing list, and mentioned the name of our company and a brief description of what we do. I think some Google employees saw it.”

In a matter of days, the company could not be found in a Google search.

“Literally, you typed the name of the company into the search box and we did not turn up. Anywhere. You’d find us if you knew our Web address. But in terms of search, we just disappeared.”

The company now operates under a new name and with a profile that is low even in the building where it claims to have an office. The landlord at the building, a gleaming, glassy midrise next to Route 101 in Redwood City, Calif., said she had never heard of the company.

USA Today has some bad graphs but at least it's not the New York Times

The following quote was included in one of Andrew Gelman's recent posts:
Is this the worst infographic ever to appear in NYT? USA Today is not something to aspire to.
This strikes me as deeply unfair to USA Today. The paper has certainly run its share of bad graphs but these take things to a new level. It is as if the NYT used illustrations from "How to Lie with Statistics" as a starting point and then tried to top them.

Here's the "View of the U.S." where the lower the icon is, the higher its approval.

And here's the "U.S. Pakistan Policy" where the scrolls are arranged so you can't really compare their sizes (I initially thought they were going for some depth effect).

And here's the "Greatest Threat" which takes Huff's height/volume examples to the next level by using images of different shapes and densities.

Finally there's this amazing piece of work:

Just glancing at this you would probably conclude that the amount of blue in the circles corresponds to percentage in agreement. For example, looking at the middle circle you'd assume that almost all of those surveyed were in disagreement. You'd be wrong. More agreed than disagreed. (This was also noted by one of the commenters on Gelman's site.)

While they don't quite match this, these graphs may be the worst we've seen from a major paper in recent memory.

[adapted in part from a comment I left on Andrew Gelman's site]