Chess as life

“A bad plan is better than no plan at all”
-Emmanuel Lasker

I’ve been playing a lot of chess recently, so I thought I might write about it.

The five general principles of chess:

1: Understand the value of each piece (pawn = 1, knight/bishop = 3, rook = 5, queen = 9), and only trade a piece for an opponents piece of equal or greater value.
2: Control the center
3: In the opening, don’t move the same piece twice
4: Make sure your king is safe
5: Try not to have any unprotected pieces
One of the ways you can divided thinking in chess is between tactics and strategy. Tactics being when you calculate (if I do this, then he can do that, and I’ll have to do this…). Strategy is doing because they’re good in principle (putting a rook on an open file, even if it has no immediate benefit). One of the things I’ve been learning in chess is that good strategy leads to good tactical opportunities. Doing the right things early (developing pieces, for instance), gives more occasions when a complicated piece of calculation will significanly help you out. That is, that doing the right things at the beginning, even if it doesn’t necessarily have an immediate benefit, will give you opprotunities later on.

I won’t go into the cliche details, but I think this is the way that life primarily works. Doing things “right” leads to opportunities, sitting back and complaining that you never get opportunities doesn’t. If you value what you should value, are willing to make the right trade offs (good bishop for bad bishop), then you will slowly gain advantages.

Thee sixth rule is that you have to have a plan. The plan isn’t necessarily something that you will ever accomplish, but for any given circumstance within chess you have to have something to work towards, if not to accomplish it then to preoccupy your opponent. Same as in life, a plan may neven be realized, but in working towards something you may be able to recognize another plan or another opportunity. But again, if you don’t have a plan in the first place, you may not be able to see the new opportunity.

The last rule for chess is this, whenever the time is right, when you have an opportunity and your goal is within reach, ignore all other rules and abandon all principles to achieve checkmate. Save your money, be responsible work hard, but remember that doing those things are a means to an end. What use is it to save money except to one day spend it (whether on yourself or on somebody else)? What use is it to work hard except to accomplish something? When there is something you truly desire, whether that is social change, or a significant other, or something else, don’t let things like career, money or status stand in your way, even if they got you 90% of the way there, don’t let them hold you back when you’re about to checkmate your opponent.

Insider Trading is Stealing

Over at econlib, Charles Hooper argues that insider trading doesn’t really hurt anyone. Insider trading instead is a victimless crime, and is in fact beneficial.

His argument goes like the following:

In the market for any given stock, there are “uninformed buyers” and “uniformed sellers.” That is, people who buy and sell stock but without inside information. In his example he uses the case of something very good happening to a company soon. The number of uninformed buyers (or technically the shares which uniformed buyers buy) will equal the number of uniformed sellers (with the same technicality).

The uniformed seller is hurt because he does not reap the rewards of the good news, but remember this is before any insider trading occurs, so it can’t be said he is hurt by insider trading.

Then, and insider comes along, buys a number of shares, and profits from the good news, making a large sum of money after the news is made public. Mr. Hooper asks who is hurt from this? Certainly not the uniformed seller, because he was going to sell anyway. The person most hurt is the uniformed buyer, who loses on the opportunity. Yet the uniformed buyer has no real claim to the potential benefits, after all, the buyers can’t complain that the “Insider snatched Uninformed Buyer’s dumb-luck windfall”.

There is one fatal flaw in the argument: Mr. Hooper seems to believe that any increase in the number of buyers will be offset by an equal decrease in buyers. But there are two ways that an increase in buys can effect the market, it can “crowd out” other buyers, or it can cause more people to sell, most likely some mix of the two. For various reasons, I think that the effect would be more sellers rather than fewer other buyers, but all we need to establish is that some of the effect of buying shares is encouraging others to sell them.

Now, we see the problem. The insider, an employee and agent of the shareholder, is transacting with the shareholder, using the knowledge that they gained only through being an employee against the shareholder. That is simply wrong.

Let’s clarify with an example: lets say that three friends pool their money to form an oil exploration company, hoping to find the next big well. One of them runs the company (being an engineer and all), and gets paid a salary, but the three friends split all profits evenly. They go a long time without finding any oil, and all three are discouraged. Then, one day, it becomes very evident that they are about to strike oil; but only to the one running the company. Instead of telling his co-investors about it, he instead offers to buy up their shares.

We can argue about ethics and why this is or isn’t ethical; but those discussions go nowhere. Instead, lets talk about economics. Each outside investor knows that, whenever they transact with insider, they can expect to lose. If they sell their shares to the insider, well they can bet that they’re on the verge of hitting oil. And if the insider offers to sell his shares, then they can be certain that the wells are dry (or that the expected find won’t pan out). Basically, the outsiders have one rule if they don’t want to get screwed: never transact with the insider. This of course hurts the insider, why shouldn’t he be allowed to sell to his co-investors if he needs the money, or buy if he has a windfall he wants to invest? In fact, we can see that the insider is worse off in this example than the outsiders (assuming they have jobs which pay the same), they can transact with each other (buying to invest, selling shares in order to consume), assuming their counterpart wants to do the opposite. But the insider can never transact, nobody will every buy from him or sell to him.

How do we fix this? Simple, make it a law that says that the insider can’t transact based on knowledge that he has that the outsiders don’t; the outsiders will now be willing to sell, knowing that they are protected if the insider has material nonpublic information. Thus, the insider now has the same privileges as the outsiders, and (in our simplified example), everybody is better off (they all have more potential trading partners) and nobody is worse off – clearly a pareto improvement.

But lets imagine a twist to the scenario. Instead of buying the shares directly from the outsiders, the insider sets up a shell company to purchase the shares from the outsiders, the outsiders have no way of knowing that the company is really owned by the insider. Is this ethical? I certainly don’t think so, all the shareholders put their trust in the insider that he would act in their best interests; keeping all potential upside is certainly not within their interests.

Lets use a third example. Same company, same three friends. They strike oil in a well which is expected to produce 100 barrels a day. Instead, it produces 120 barrels a day. The insider decides to take the extra 20 barrels and sell them himself (whether he does this buy selling them through the company and then embezzling the money or physically diverting the 20 barrels a day is unimportant). Is this action ethical? No – it is stealing. But it’s really the same action as above – using insider information (in this case the number of barrels being produced) in a manner against the best interests of the shareholder. How is this any different from insider trading – finding the extra 20 barrels a day, and then offering a price to the other shareholders based off of 100 barrels a day. In fact, it can be shown that the economic impact is exactly the same- the outsiders get the net present value of the sale of 100 bpd split evenly while the insider gets the net present value of the 20 bpd entirely to himself.

Now, you may argue that this doesn’t apply to the situation of the market as a whole; after all transactions on the stock market are much more anonymous. But this doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. There is (typically) no way of knowing who you are buying shares from; so the insider who buys shares using material nonpublic information would be as if the insider in our above example set up a shell company to buy shares from the other investors. They would sell without ever even knowing that they were selling to the business partner. I can’t see how any of this is ethical, it is currently illegal and should remain so.

Transformer Politics

It’s a wonderful time to be a movie fan. We’ve had so many wonderful movies come out recently, from the sequel of the Star Trek reboot movie, to the sequel to the Spiderman reboot. Chances are, if you like comic books, you’re going to see your masked avenger on the big screen. And even if you don’t like the movie, you’ll get an entirely new version of that movie soon! Whats that, you didn’t like Brandon Routh as Superman? Well, you can see Henry Cavill as the man of steel.  Tobey Maguire not your taste?  Try Andrew Garfield!

Let take a look on at the top 10 movies of 2014:

1: Guardians of the Galaxy – based on a comic book and a film set in the same universe as who knows how many others

2: The Hunger Gamse: Mockingjay – Part 1. – Based on a book, sequel to other installments of the same series.

3: Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Based on a comic book, in the same universe as movie #1, direct sequel to another comic book movie.

4: The Lego Movie: Not based on a comic book! Although it has a comic book character in it. Based on a children’s toy line.

5: Transformers: Age of Extinction. 4th in a series of movies based on a cartoon based on a children’s toy line.

6: Maleficent: A reboot/spin off of a cartoon movie that came out in 1959

7: X-Men: Days of Future Past. Another in a series of movies that are so numerous I’ve lost count of them (let’s see, there were 3 basic X-men, First Class, two Wolverine movies, I think a Magneto movie? is this the 8th movie?) based off of a comic book.

8: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A sequel to a reboot of a popular movie franchise:

9: Big Hero 6: An animated movie based off a Marvel Comic book.

10: The Amazing Spider-Man 2. A sequel to a reboot of a movie franchise that came out in 2002 and was based off a comic book.

Well, there you have it, 10 movies, 10 pre-existing franchises – most of them based on superhero comic books. (also, as an aside, maybe its time to buy Disney Stock. A full 6 of those movies are based on properties Disney owns).

So what is the point?

I can think of several reasons why this is happening. I do need to mention that part of this is due to the international market of movies now. Action translates much better than comedy or drama, and therefore we get more dumb action movies. But this only explains why popular movies are action movies, not why they are action movies based on pre-existing properties. Another reason is the expensive nature of marketing movies, and movies that are sequels already have a built in fan base, and are thus need less marketing.

These are important and play a role; but I want to talk about two other things that are effecting this.

The first is nerd culture. At some point, nerds became the driving force behind popular culture, which is a clear reversal the past 100 years. For the longest time, nerds had been the lowest rung of the social ladder, and the things that nerds did, watch cartoons after a certain age, care about comics, video games, and the like were considered signs of low status, and for a large part the reason those were low status is partially because they were rare. In high school, and especially after college, it was hard for people to relate to others who had those interests. Therefore, the “marginal nerd,” that is, someone whose natural interests were such that they could in effect choose to be more of a nerd or choose to more typical, chose to be more typical; it served them better in meeting other people, finding mates, getting a better job, etc.

At a certain point, two things happened. One is it became came along and allowed people of any interest to find others with the same interests. While the internet is the biggest single cause of this, there are other reasons as well, the existence of fan conventions is a big one as well. The other thing that happened is the number and pay of jobs requiring “nerd” skills greatly increased; there is now a giant demand for programmers, engineers, financial “quants,” and other jobs which, for whatever reason, nerds seem to be more skilled at. These two things both led that aforementioned marginal nerd to be much more likely to embrace his (or her) nerdy side.

Now, all this is kind of just normal, it may be interesting to think about but not necessary to cause every movie to be about comic books. After all, when disco was in, there were movies with disco soundtracks, movies about disco and movies starring John Travolta; but its not like there were only movies about disco in the 1970s. But with the advent of nerd culture, you see almost nothing but movies aimed at nerds. (and if you think I’m cherry-picking 2014 to make my point, 2013 is eerily similar at the top ten spots: Marvel Universe movie at number 1, followed by hunger games, followed by comic book movies, then a bunch of 3D animated movies, also a spin off of a classic children’s fantasy movie. 2012 was different though, instead of a marvel universe movie followed by a hunger games movie, it was a marvel universe movie, then a different comic book movie, then a hunger games movie.) So what is it about nerds that has this effect? For the most part, its that nerds become nerds by liking stuff a little too much. If they like comic books, they don’t just like comic books, but they have to know and somehow reconcile the whole of the comic book universe’s history. If they like Star Trek, they don’t just like watch the TV show, they learn Klingon. And so on. They are dedicated to their interests in ways that other subcultures aren’t. All this means that they are a gigantic market, they have disposable income and they care deeply about movies; making a movie for nerds is very lucrative.

But again, while this may explain a lot of what of the box office, it doesn’t explain everything. After all, the Twilight movies have done incredibly well, and nerds hate those movies with a passion. Also, the Fast and the Furious movies have done quite well, (most of them guaranteed a top ten domestic gross), and other than being aimed at males, there is nothing nerdy about those movies.

Certainly a lot of it is risk averse behavior by the movie studios. They can refuse to make movies which don’t have a built in fan base, and they can refuse to attempt ground breaking movies set in new fictional universes. But that’s not really what is going on, as these movies are still getting made, it’s just that no one is going to see Jupiter Ascending this weekend, while the whole universe is going to see the Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I think that what is going on here is something that is kind of scary. Our cynicism is so great that we won’t believe what the studios tell us, instead we look to other places such as social media to tell us which movies to see, and we see them. Yet social media is enthralled by its own set of agendas, it’s currency is eyeballs and recommending a movie that doesn’t become popular can be bad for the site. So, whether through careful planning or through Darwinian mechanisms, the most popular sites become those who tell us what we want to hear; it’s not just the studios who can’t shape demand; neither can anyone else. So our movie culture is frozen at some point in the late 90’s.  Paradoxically as the studios have lost their role as gatekeepers and can no longer shape demand, they have become more powerful in influencing what movies we see.

In 1993 a director decided to take a risk, and bought the movie rights to a science fiction novel, from which he made a giant action sci-fi movie. The actors were fine, each played his or her part in the story, but none of them were the draw; the draw was the computer generated dinosaurs. It was marketed to death but made an incredible amount of money.

20 years later, any studio that wants to make a movie about dinosaurs can do so; while the rights to Jurassic Park are proprietary, nobody owns the concept of dinosaurs. Yet they don’t, we won’t see another movie in the mold of Jurassic Park; however we will see probably several more movies with the world “Jurassic” in their title.  In terms of movies, our society values names beyond content, and is almost incapable of creating anything that is both popular and original.

At about now, any responsible essay about the latest trend in movies would have to mention things about how television is the new center for creativity in the popular arts, specifically mentioning premium cable networks and even video streaming sites.  Television has recently given us all sorts of original content: we’ve had crime stories (such as The Wire), fantasy epics (Game of Thrones) period pieces (Mad Men). Even within some of those genres you have incredible diversity. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad and True Detective are all about crime; yet none of them are like ther others in any way except superficially.

But this isn’t an essay about movies, it’s an essay about politics.

In 1992, we had a Presidential race between two people, one was an upstart Democratic governor who had a new vision of the future and represented a change not just in politics but in attitude and culture as well. The other was an experienced Republican technocrat whose resume was a mile long: President, Vice President, Congressman, Ambassador to China, Ambassador to the UN, and director of the CIA, not to mention his business and military experience. Bush vs Clinton was about not just two political parties or two sets of policies, in many ways it was a referendum on what the presidency was about. Was experience more important than vision? Did the country need a new enthusiasm or a steady hand?

Just like we won’t see another Jurassic Park but we will see another Jurassic Park Movie, , we won’t see another Bush vs Clinton, but we may very well see another Bush vs Clinton. As of February 7 2015, the most likely presidential matchup looks to be Jeb Bush vs Hilary Clinton.

Jeb Bush was the two term governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. Before that time and since that time, he hasn’t exactly become known for a whole lot. Now it’s very easy to be snarky and take pot shots at somebody whose only accomplishment is being a two term governor. Its a lot more than I’ve accomplished and probably you have as well.   Being a governor is not unimpressive, it is only a few rungs away from the very top of the political ladder, furthermore being reelected is also no mean feat. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I’m writing this in my pajamas from the comfort of my apartment and I really don’t mean this as a personal criticism of Jeb Bush at all. What I do mean to say is that as elected officials go (which is necessarily an impressive set of people), he isn’t that impressive. There are a number of Republican governors in recent memory (Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal easily come to mind) who are, if not better candidates for President, more representative of a facet within the GOP. The same can be said for various senators (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio come to mind).

Hilary Clinton moved to New York State for the sole purpose of running for Sentator there. After Rudy Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer and withdrew from the New York Senate race in 2000, Hillary Clinton defeated republican challenger Rick Lazio.  She won re-election in 2006, and became Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State. (everything I said about not snarking with regards to Jeb Bush can be said doubly for Hillary Clinton). In the only truly competitive race she ever ran, the 2008 democratic nomination for President, she was beaten. This is, even with my above parenthetical, a little bit unfair, losing the democratic nomination to Barack Obama is kind of like losing a game of basketball to Lebron James, also Secretary of State is a very important position, and Senator is nothing to shake a stick at either. But, at least on paper, I don’t think she is that much more impressive than Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of Health and Human Services former governer of Kansas), Janet Neapolitano (Secretary of Homeland Security, former Governor of Arizona), or John Kerry (Secretary of State, former Senator) (although you can argue that Kerry already had his chance). My point is that, even if you like Hillary, I don’t think she is so impressive that she should waltz to the nomination in a way that only Vice Presidents of two term presidents typically do.

Just like our movies are dominated by a sort of culture of least resistance, our political culture seems to be heavily influenced by a similar dynamic. Seeking not just to pick a president we like, but a president we think others will like, we are almost forced to pick the familiar name. After all, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. We are unable or unwilling to entertain “new” things, we reach to the familiar, to recreate something from our past, without realizing our that our past wasn’t created by trying to recreate its past.

Now it is entirely possible that we may get to November 2016 and be on pins and needles about whether Rand Paul or Elizabeth Warren will be our next president; and everything I’ve said will have been proved to be mostly bunk. In fact, while I’m on the fence as to whether Hillary Clinton will become the nominee, I am actually doubtful that Jeb Bush will be the Republican nominee. Furthermore, this whole essay is missing the elephant in the room (er, the donkey in the room?), having failed to mention Barack Obama. I guess if we’re comparing people to movies, Obama would be Avatar, something wholly original (at least in terms of franchise/name if not content) who broke lots of records. However, even if we see a Paul vs Warren race (or Walker vs Booker or whatever), I don’t think that it will invalidate the whole of this essay. Instead, it will prove not that the same instincts which govern movies don’t apply to politics, but that we are capable of overcoming those instincts for the truly important decisions we face, (which, I suppose, is a very optimistic way of ending this essay.)

Athletic Quotient

I began writing this post last week, and since then, Scott Alexander has also posted about IQ using athletic ability as an analogy. Not only of course did he do it first, but he did it better as well.

Imagine if somebody came up with a physical measurement corresponding to intelligence. Let’s call it Athletic Quotient (AQ). We can come up with some sort of list of tests, perhaps the 100 meter dash, the high jump, the max amount one can bench press, some sort of measure of reflexes, etc. Furthermore, it, like IQ, had an average of 100 and a standard deviation of 10.

And i think its fair to imagine, just using people from your own life, that people who are good at one aspect of physicality are good at others. People who run fast can generally lift more weights, etc. Let’s compare me to Lebron James: I’m sure that he is better than me at probably every athletic endeavor (speed, strength, reflexes coordination). Unless there’s some really weird skill that Lebron James doesn’t have, (for instance, if he cannot swim at all or never learned how to ride a bike, both of which are possibilities so remote as to be laughable), there probably isn’t a single Olympic Sport that I (or, unless you are a very peculiar individual, you) could beat him in. This doesn’t just apply to the greats however, remembering back to school it was always the same people who got picked first, almost no matter the sport. Or think of the stereotypical big man on campus, who was quarterback in football, point guard in basketball, and shortstop in baseball. At the reverse end of the spectrum, you have the stereotypical nerds, of course who not only lacked in physical strength but in coordination as well. People who are above average along one physical dimension are, generally speaking, good along most others.

But at the extremes it breaks down. Think of defensive linemen (yay! another football blog post!), they are incredibly strong yet very slow. At the other end of the spectrum would be female Olympic gymnasts, who probably have the highest flexibility and dexterity of anybody on the planet, yet wouldn’t exactly break any weight lifting records. This is exasperated by the fact that a large amount of athletic success is learned, not inborn, and its very difficult to become very skilled in more than one athletic endeavor. Think of how few two sport athletes there have been, the complete list is here, and like everything else in Wikipedia, it has more information that you can possibly image. If you examine it, you’ll find that the vast majority of examples are of the “drafted by such as such.” Perhaps the best evidence is that Michael Jordans (ie transcendent athlete) are more common than Bo Jacksons.
I think we can safely say the following about AQ:

1: Its real, some people are more athletic than others.
2: It breaks down as a predictor of success at sufficiently high levels (ie, an AQ of 170 would beat an AQ of 100 at most every sport, but when comparing an AQ 170 person to an AQ 150 person, other characteristics (body type, skill level, etc) would be much more valuable to know).
3: People can be very good at one aspect of AQ and bad at another; this can be more pronounced the higher the AQ (especially raw strength – in order to build strength you need body mass, which at a certain point is detrimental to most other physical characteristics).
4: Although natural AQ is important, almost every aspect of athletic success is more responsive to training than natural talent.

I don’t think that this is at all controversial, and I doubt that too many people would disagree with any of the 4 above points.

I think the same 4 points hold for IQ.

1: IQ is real, and is important and explains a lot about one’s ability in intellectual pursuits (and therefore one’s place in society as a whole).
2: IQ breaks down as a predictor of success at high levels; most every standardized test (such as SAT, GMAT, etc) tend to break down intelligence into math and verbal sections.
3: People can be good at one aspect of intelligence and bad at another, and this can be most pronounced at the highest values. There have been people who are incredible writers and have been not too good at math. And of course, there’s the not untrue stereotype of people who are incredible at math yet horrible in social situations.
4: While high IQ can be predictive of success, it is not as important as practice for almost any endeavor. There have been quite a few people who are brilliant at chess, current world champion Magnus Carlsen became a grand master at the age of 13, clearly he has an enormous talent for chess. However, he still studies chess an incredible amount.
We don’t have AQ, and really for good reasons, while it contains information, we don’t use it as a gauge of athletic ability because for almost every athletic endeavor there is a better set of measurements for that endeavor . Vertical reach may be useful to baseball players, but it is paramount to basketball players. Nobody has ever tried to take the average importance of the two, weigh them against the averages of other scores in order to get a general measure of how a person would do as a baseball or basketball player. The reason nobody has ever done this is obvious, it would be a huge waste of time.

Yet that appears to be what we are doing with IQ. We have a measure which definitely conveys information (we can say that some people are smarter than others), and perhaps this is a useful tool to use in the social sciences (there is nothing wrong with using imperfect measures in a model so long as there aren’t more perfect measures available), but I have a feeling that people give way too much credit to this one measure, and often when thinking of the general, we can be lost to the specifics. Yes, general intelligence is important, but it can be overshadowed by any number of factors; hard work, dedication, wisdom, or even a specific intelligence for a matter. Richard Feynman (Nobel winning physicist who worked on the Manhattan project and developed the idea of Quantum Electrodynamics) once had his IQ measured at 125, so while his intelligence may have been only above average at the specific tasks which IQ measures, it was incredible when pointed towards theoretical physics. We should be cognizant of this lesson; not only that attitude is more important than aptitude, but that aptitude is more nuanced then we may first think it.

Left Shark

In the enormous list of things I don’t understand, you can put dancing at or near the top.

The Superbowl was yesterday, and of course there are a million things to write about the sport, the play calling, blah blah blah, if you actually care about football, you shouldn’t be reading a blog whose official stance is that football is an objectively bad sport. (Ok, I will mention that the fight started by Seattle at the end of the game was an absolute disgrace).

Instead, I want to talk about the half time show. It began with Katy Perry riding a giant lion; this marked the first time that the Superbowl has ever had any lions in it. (for my non-American readers, this was a joke at the expense of Michigan).

The second act (maybe third), saw Katy wear a colorful beach outfit and dance alongside anthropomorphic beach balls trees and, in what seems to be what everyone is talking about, sharks. Specifically, the “left shark,” who, according to everyone on the internet, had his (or her) timing (or choreography as they call it in the choreography business) off. You can watch a clip of this here.

Now, what I don’t understand is how do we know which one was off? I can tell that they aren’t dancing together. If there were three of them and one wasn’t doing his moves right, then it’d be obvious which one was off. But with only two; I can’t be sure. Furthermore, what does everyone mean by left? Is it our left (from the position of the TV camera) or Kay Perry’s left (Katy Perry was generally dancing/singing towards the camera)? While all of this speaks not only to my lack of understanding of dancing, and my unwillingness to do even a basic amount of research on a topic, I think I can use it to speak about something important.

There’s plenty of people who understand left shark, and can speak to why the whole thing is funny. But theres other people, in this case me, who don’t really get it but can pick up on the fact that everyone is talking about it and join the fray, gladly heaping onto left shark (hell, I’m writing a whole blog post about left shark, and I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHICH ONE HE WAS!).

Now all this is fine in this instance, because its all in good fun, because people are generally supporting left shark, and because it will be forgotten in a week anyway. But this is endemic to life, especially to politics. People who don’t understand (in the case of dancing, that would be me) take our cues on who left shark was based on what everyone else says, suddenly we’ve got people who don’t understand the first thing about dance having strong opinions on left shark, while being totally unable to evaluate or even understand those opinions.

(this post was about politics)

Of Flowers and Man

Imagine you are a visitor to a primitive society. And lets say that, for whatever reason, you are treated as something of a magician, or wise man, not quite a God, but just because you’re an outsider you are treated very specially and definitely listened to.

Now lets say that the religion, or superstition if you will, of the people involves sacrifices to the weather god or gods (or goddesses or whatever, its not important), in the hopes of bringing favorable weather. Let us also suppose that the great divide between the society is two camps, one of which believes that humans should be sacrificed, the other that flowers should be sacrificed. There’s quite a bit of rhetorical fighting between the two sides as they argue about which is correct.

Furthermore, lets say that the position in favor of human sacrifice is generally considered more correct (the society is divided about 60-35-5 for Human, Flower, and everybody else factions respectively), and (in what is of course a totally unlikely development), the society, although quite primitive in their understanding of weather, has developed advanced statistical methods, and the standard regression seems to re-inforce the human sacrifice position. For the sake of argument (of course, granting that this whole example, if not whole blog, is for nothing but the sake of argument, as nothing like this is obviously some sort of analogy that I hope is going somewhere), the popular regression compares rainy days per time period with human sacrifices in the same period, and that the formula is something like:

Number of Rainy Days = Constant + A (number of sacrifices) + B (Season)

Where season is a dummy variable on whether its the rainy season.   A has the right (in this case positive) sign on it, and is statistically significant, but only at the 10% level. (I know there’s probably a lot of ways you can attack this regression and there are any number of scenarios which are non-causal but may lead to this relationship, for instance, perhaps the society is more likely to sacrifice when rain seems likely, such as on cloudy days, but I’m already spending way too much time on analyzing an argument that doesn’t actually exist so I’m not going to put any more effort into trying to make the mathematics behind an imaginary regression analysis more sound).

The human sacrificers don’t like human sacrifice per se (ie, they have no attachment to it outside of the fact that they think it brings rain), but they argue that the small number of lives lost due to the sacrifice are a tiny cost compared the large number of lives saved by the better weather.

The question posed to you as an outsider is, which faction do you support, those who would sacrifice humans, or those who would sacrifice flowers? Even though, from the viewpoint of the people involved, the human sacrificers have the better case, I would absolutely argue for the flower faction, not because I think they are more likely to be correct (in fact I think that neither action would have any effect on the weather), but because the costs of flower sacrificing are much smaller.

The point is that we often view arguments and debates on which side we find to be more likely to be right, without taking the entirety of the decision making process. We can do similar things. If we think that there is a 51% chance that our flight will crash, we absolutely will not get on it. But if we revise our estimates to think that there is only a 49% chance that our flight will crash, well, we still won’t get on it. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but its probably something well below a single percent (humans, myself included, are very bad at interpreting very low probabilities, so we’d probably do something like put the odds at 1 in a thousand justify getting on the plane, when in reality they shouldn’t, but I’m on a tangent).

The original argument that I was thinking of regarding the flowers vs the human sacrifices is of Keynsian Economics vs Monetarism (or market monetarism, or Chicago school, or whatever); that is should we, at the zero interest rate bound, use government deficit spending Fed Open Market purchases to stimulate the economy? My guess is that they’re probably both equally wrong, but the Keynsian process is more costly, so I tend to support the less costly option. If in fact, you do believe that Keynsianism works, than by all means support it, but the question you should be asking isn’t “what economic theory is most likely to be correct,” the question should be “What is the probability that Keysnianism is effective” and then have some sort of bar from which you would support it. The question of “what is most likely to be correct” is a perhaps useful for academics for determining what to study, but not for which policy to support.

(this post is an analogy: I’m not trying to actually compare Keynsian economics to human sacrifice).

The Deflation Analogy

So the world, or at least the US, is a buzz with the great issue of the day, which is of course “Deflategate.” What disappoints me most about this whole thing is that we will forever use the suffix “-gate” to describe every single scandal, which I think is stupid; but alas, nothing on earth, save for the extermination of the human race, or perhaps we’ll start running out of beginning words (although that is unlikely) will stop it. Its here to stay.

But I digress. So the issue, for those wonderful readers who exist in some corner of the universe that isn’t following the scandal closely, perhaps you are from Asia, or perhaps you are from some point in the future after where deflategate is a distant memory, which is probably something stupidly soon, like three weeks from the time of this writing, is that the football team (and don’t get me started on football vs soccer, the name of the sport where you kick a round ball into a net and aren’t allowed to use your hands is called “Soccer” in the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia New Zealand and Ireland, or in other words, just about the entire English speaking world except England) the New England Patriots had, in the first half of their semifinals against the Indianapolis Colts, played with under-inflated footballs, which is against the rules and supposedly gave them an advantage. A couple of notes, as of this writing, nobody knows how the balls became under-inflated or who if anyone did it. Also, it seems unlikely that the deflation had any real effect on the outcome of the game, after the end of the first half, the Patriots (playing with under-inflated footballs) outscored the Colts 17 to 7, after the second half, (playing with normal footballs), the Patriots outscored the Colts 28 to 0.

Now of course everyone who follows this quickly began their two favorite pastimes, heavy-handed moralizing and making up lame excuses. So I thought I would share some of my wonderful wisdom in the form of a strained analogy.

Imagine you were teaching a class, and you caught a student cheating; say having an illegal “cheat sheet” on him. Only the student was already a grade A student, and the cheat sheet didn’t actually have any information relevant to the test on it, and the student got an A anyway. Do you still punish the student. I think that absolutely you do, the student attempted to cheat using a method he knew was wrong, that there was no real advantage conferred is irrelevant, cheating is still cheating.

Only I don’t think that this is the correct analogy. A more suitable one is that you have a group project, a team of five students are assigned to write a paper. Now lets say that, when grading it, you determine that one of the paragraphs had been plagiarized. The rest of the paper was solid, and removing the paragraph wouldn’t change your opinion of the paper (obviously, excepting the part about plagiarism). During your investigation, you can’t tell which student added the paragraph, and its your honest opinion none of the students (except the guilty one) knew who added it (I realize that this may strain credulity; maybe you can assume that they were operating under a shared document with no version tracking). Finally, while you were able to identify the fact that the paragraph in question was plagiarized, its only because you are a professor in the field, you wouldn’t expect any of the students to be able to identify it.

The question is do you punish the students? In order for there to be culpability, you need either intent or negligence. None of the students (besides the guilty one) had any intention of plagiarism; and none was negligent as it would take knowledge that nobody would expect them to have (as students aren’t expected to have the same knowledge as professors, because then why take the class). If you were to punish all 5 students, chances are you would be punishing 4 innocent students and one guilty one; which I don’t believe is just.

Now, of course, no analogy is perfect, and we’re assuming that we won’t learn anything new or that the NFL doesn’t have information that we aren’t privy to. (As a final aside, is there anybody who thinks that the NFL knows what they’re doing?).

(So one of the reasons I’m starting this blog is to be better at writing, and one of the things I think I’m bad at is ending stuff. So insert good ending here!)