Thursday, October 29, 2009

why god is unnecessary

Now I happen to agree with Professor Dawkins that God is unnecessary, but I think he’s got the reason precisely backward. God is unnecessary not because complex things require simple antecedents but because they don’t.
I happen to be in the "this is a pointless discussion because there is by definition no way to prove or disprove god's existence" camp, but if you want to replace "God" with "an unexplainable black box in the laws of science", then the argument is truly interesting (although no one would care about this question either if "god" wasn't a convenient summary of that idea that comes with all the connotative baggage that people do care about.)

It's much more reasonable to say "I don't understand this because I don't understand this" than to say "I don't understand this because it's impossible to understand." The only context in which people like to forget this is the realm that is allegedly attributable to god.

So anyway, strip away the religious rhetoric, and you've got an actually interesting philosophical discussion.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pedestrian equilibrium

One of the things I love about New York City and hate about the Bay area and hate for different reasons about Los Angeles is the social equilibrium governing whether cars or pedestrians have to yield to each other.

In the Bay area, pedestrians can whimsically meander at whatever rose-sniffing pace they prefer into oncoming traffic, or ride their wheelchairs in figure 8s in busy intersections, and if a car so much as thinks about continuing through their green light, they're in trouble (minimum fine $140 as posted all over town), and screamed at / flipped off / socially ostracized by every onlooker. Pedestrians rule.

In New York, it's every man for himself. If you want to jaywalk, go right ahead, but it's your own responsibility not to get killed. The taxis might honk but they won't slow down, and they're moving pretty darn quick down that narrow one-way road...

In LA, pedestrians are strictly confined to the sidewalks, and jaywalking is ticketed diligently. I'm not sure what would happen if someone dashed in front of traffic a little too close for comfort because I've never seen it happen...

It's hard to find suitable data to see what the outcome of these different equilibria are, but as far as I can tell from various independent reports, the 5 boroughs of NYC have about 250 pedestrian fatalities per year. San Francisco has about 17. When you scale that by population (NYC has 8.5 million, SF 800,000), the equivalent number would be around 180.

But, New York has VASTLY more pedestrians than San Francisco. Sure, certain areas in the Bay area, like the Mission and downtown Berkeley, are crowded with people on foot. But EVERY neighborhood in the five boroughs of NYC is like that. I couldn't find data on the percentage of people who primarily get around on foot or anything comparable, but anyone who has been both places can attest to the fact that it's not even close. I would guess NYC has several times as many miles-walked per capita.

When you take that into account, I'd feel statistically much safer as a pedestrian in NYC than in San Francisco, despite the higher real death toll.

(I'm not going to look up LA because I don't really care. I prefer to imagine that LA doesn't exist.)

This goes against the grain of the (annoyingly moralistic without regard to outcome) reasoning about traffic laws in Berkeley. "Pedestrians SHOULD always have the right of way because they're doing the environment a favor. Cars SHOULD always yield to crazy people because they don't know any better." Well frankly LA and NY have just as many crazy people and I've yet to see one there walking into the middle of a busy intersection at rush hour, causing cars to swerve and slam on their brakes, and yelling inane nonsense and flipping off anyone who almost kills them (this happened last week a few blocks from my house, nearly killing ME, because swerving and braking simultaneously is kinda dangerous on a two-wheeled vehicle...)

Even if you're batshit nuts, you'll learn pretty quickly that moseying down 5th avenue in Manhattan will get you killed. And if 95% of the time cars come to a screeching halt as soon as you head for the road, you'll stop thinking about looking both ways. That other 5% of the time brings up the accident rate drastically.

Berkeley city planning should hire a behavioral economist.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Marriage in Oklahoma

In the "maps that show Oklahoma as an outlier in funny ways" category of this blog, it doesn't get much better than this.
  • Oklahoma has the 5th highest share of divorced men, and 4th highest share of divorced women.
  • Oklahoma is number 2 for youngest median age of men getting married, and number 4 for youngest median age of women (26 and 24 respectively).
  • But I save the best for last... Oklahoma has the highest share of women who have been married 3 or more times, and 2nd highest share of men (a startling high 10 and 9 percent respectively. Now that's depressing.)
Go figure, those last two are strongly correlated. Relatedly, I find it striking that, while it is true that 10-year divorce rates have exceeded 50% in some demographic groups in the United States, the rate among those who get married after attaining a graduate degree is less than 15%. Unfortunately I can't find that reference at the moment...

It's also true that outcomes such as divorce rates and multiple-marriage rates and kids-out-of-wedlock rates are correlated with the prevalence of religious fundamentalism... Recall the highly entertaining study from a year ago crowning Utah as the state with the highest rate of internet pornography subscribers.

What surprises me (and I think should be studied further) is that this seems to be primarily a cultural phenomenon, not a result simply of higher numbers of poor or uneducated people who get married young for economic reasons or because they don't anticipate improved prospects with time or just because they don't question that it's 'the thing to do'. Anecdotally, among my high school class, a group of very smart students selected to attend a public magnet school, many of the ones who stayed in the state for college are already married, and few of those who left. Same thing with my junior high friends to an even more extreme degree - many of the ones who stayed in Oklahoma are married with kids already, and none of the ones who left. I suspect that religiosity is the component of culture that captures most of this phenomenon, along with the spillover effect in which the (very small) minority makes similar decisions as the fundamentalist majority in non-religious matters when enveloped in that culture.

Just to be clear, I certainly don't judge anyone's individual decision, but statistical generalities are true regardless of the circumstances of individuals who may or may not fit the pattern...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

football analysis

This attempt at logic, from a blog that is too bad to bother linking, pains me on so many levels...:
If A equals B and B equals C, then A must be equal C. The Transitive Theory. We've all seen it. It makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the sports world tends to abuse the general concept behind it.

Take the 2009 Denver Broncos. As we all know, during the off-season, the Broncos left everyone feeling that new coach Josh McDaniels was in over his head. The biggest factor leading to that common conclusion was the trade that sent Jay Cutler to Chicago.
So, using the transitive theory, you would conclude that the Cutler trade was a good idea. The Broncos traded Jay Cutler. The Broncos are better than anyone expected. Therefore, the Jay Cutler trade was a good idea.
However there are some other good statistical football sites I've discovered recently. AdvancedNFLStats in particular. In just the last week they've addressed onside kicks, resilience of particular statistics to QB changes, and irrational punt vs field goal play calling. Tons of good stuff.

Fifth Down, the NYTimes NFL blog, of course is good journalism and that is enough to make it worth reading (it's amazing how much reading amateur blogs and typical shouting-really-fast sports journalism makes you appreciate the writing from places like NYT.) Less nerdy though.

And Cold Hard Football Facts is entertaining. More on the list-lots-of-cherry-picked-numbers end of the spectrum than the insightful-big-picture-analysis end, but hey that's fun too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

unnecessary bureaucracy

I've gotten two (blatantly, heinously invalid) motorcycle parking tickets here in Berkeley, despite the fact I almost always park in the free university motorcycle parking areas. The system is broken and the city exploits the grey area because it leads to lots of extra revenue when, after months of trying to fight it, the infuriated citizenry just gives up and pays.

1) The EZ Park system DOES NOT WORK for motorcycles. There is nowhere to put the parking receipt, and even when I have tape with me or stick it in some non-obvious strap somewhere, half the time it blows away, and is easily stolen in any case. That's why car drivers put them on their dashboards and not under windshield wipers. I can park hardly anywhere in downtown Berkeley as a result.

2) If a motorcycle parks between two occupied spaces, and one of those cars leaves and lets their meter expire, parking enforcement zealously decides to assign blame to the motorcycle, even if the motorcycle is parked directly in front of a DIFFERENT parking meter.

Please tell me who it is in elected office that can officially instate free parking in these situations until the city comes up with a sane, enforceable, consistent way to charge for motorcycle parking?

And these are motorcycle-specific problems. Then there's the infuriating city bureaucracy I'm sure you're all familiar with already... in particular, first-round appeals are automatically denied and the 2nd time you have to include a deposit for the full amount owed. Obviously they have no motivation to listen to you once they have your money...

Again, please tell me who is accountable?

It's insane that the biggest bureaucratic pain in my neck in life is a city system that is supposed to make everyone's lives easier by enforcing reasonable parking restrictions. And it's sick that that system has morphed, with no accountability, into a revenue maximizing program.

[It's afternoons like yesterday, involving four hours of bureaucratic hassle and running around begging for answers that will likely never get me off the hook for lots of money I don't owe, that make me suspicious of any government bureaucracy... How government has come to connote a nice harmless paternal safety net is beyond me.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

oh dear

I thought I had developed a pretty thick skin to the horror that is popular culture and modern society (I even held my tongue about the new DSM-V standards...) but this commercial I just saw makes me want to cry and start a new secular version of Amish society pegged at approximately 1975. A prescription drug "for inadequate or not enough lashes, also known as hypotrichosis".

(Apparently anything translated into a latin compound word is a legitimate medical disorder.)

Show of hands, men: how many of you have ever met a woman you were just mad about, except that naggingly thin eye hair was just too much to get over and you kept your distance?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I'm really baffled by foodies and the popularization of cooking essentially as a sport. Why does the enjoyment of food need to be infused with snobbery an upper-class attitude?

I really love food. Really really love. An expected ~85 years of three meals a day still seems like such a terrible constraint on allowed food-based enjoyment that I figure everything consumed should be extremely delicious to make the most of the opportunity. But this most certainly does not translate into a preference for expensive or exotic foods. I LOVE broccoli-cheddar rice-a-roni. My favorite food in the world has always been baked potatoes. McDonalds french fries are my personal heroin. Canned green beans, diet mountain dew, creamy chicken ramen noodles, cauliflower, kool-aid, easy mac... these are all large components of my (maybe not always nutritionally recommended) diet. It's not because they're cheap; it's because they're delicious.

I also really enjoy cooking. After a week of intense studying or the end of a big project, the most frequent way I'll unwind for the rest of the day is to cook massive quantities of delicious foods to eat for the next couple weeks of intense work. But I like to cook the things I like; I don't go out of my way to incorporate porcine pancreas or south american fungii and I have no problem substituting lemon juice for those crazy citrusy indian spices that are impossible to find or canola oil for $22/pint olive oil. Tastes the same.

The concept of cooking or food enjoyment as a "hobby" is also strange. Maybe some people take eating seriously enough to qualify definitionally as a hobby. Maybe some people take breathing seriously enough to qualify as a hobby. But I don't think I could claim such a thing with a straight face. Not only that, but elevating the status of food to such a level is just damaging to society overall. It's an absolute myth that poor people are forced to eat unhealthy fast food because healthy food is too expensive and/or time-consuming. I can prove that a couple dozen different ways and definitely spend less on food than if I went to McDonalds twice a day, even sticking to the dollar menu... Insisting that healthy food is only the domain of those with lots of money to buy it or lots of time to cook it just reinforces those expectations (and people rise or fall to expectations.)

So, foodie snobbery is clearly an unnecessary component to true enjoyment of food and cooking. But connoisseur commentary also eerily evokes the Emperor's new clothes. It's well-established that people's wine preferences in blind taste tests are uncorrelated with price. And that adding tasteless red dye to white wine causes people to describe the flavor with red fruits. I'll admit that maybe different types of oil taste different when you eat them plain, but I dare you to distinguish them after being used to stir fry vegetables. So when I see these ridiculous food reviews that are so popular (yet so mind-numbingly dull... I am once again baffled) I just can't take them seriously. Judgments of food quality should be subject to blind tests.

I guess it just boils down to the fact that food has become a fashion statement. And fashion is purely in the domain of the irrational. So I shouldn't waste my breath.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel Prize in Economics

Congratulations to Oliver Williamson, of the University of California at Berkeley, and Elinor Ostrom, of Indiana University, for their shared prize for work in economic governance.

Here's hoping that the 2009 win of both the John Bates Clark Medal and the Nobel prize will provide immunity to economics department from the fiscal disintegration of the University of California system...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

inherent tendencies of government

I swore I wouldn't post more David Brooks but he's on such a roll I can't help it. Read.

But he doesn't make a big deal out of the more general point, which is that government has inherent directional tendencies. Government will always make itself bigger. Government will always try to "do something" rather than leave the solution up to something/someone else. Government will always give more influence to lobbyists than unorganized groups. Federal government will grow relative to local government.

This has nothing to do with party lines or the particular attributes of lawmakers. The natural mechanisms of government will filter in actions that make these trends inevitable.

We have checks and balances to prevent similar trends in the branches of government. Unfortunately there are no checks and balances between levels of government, and I can't think of what other party would be on the other ends of a system of checks and balances on size and action and influence. Even when explicit limits are written into the constitution, the government will eventually change the constitution to favor itself (eg, the 16th amendment).

And even concerned citizens wanting to mitigate particular inevitabilities have to play the system to get anywhere (lobbyists for a lobby-free government?)

(Poor Hume. All he wanted was to let the smart engineers battle it out over sustainable energy, but instead he got ethanol subsidies.)

Monday, October 5, 2009

randian confusion

Matt Yglesias says
One thing that does always strike me about Rand, however, is that there strikes me as something particularly odd about the Randian tendency to assume that the business executive class generally constitutes the most intelligent segment of society. As if an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of ubermenschen.

One thing that always strikes me about people who have issues with Rand, is that they are so hung up on this particular choice of main character occupations in Atlas Shrugged (they are neglecting Fountainhead or We the Living or Anthem, although I'm actually ok with limiting attention to the former since it is a hundred times better and a hundred times less flawed than the others.) I'm also struck by the fact that the many other (minor, yes, but there) "good guy" characters who are musicians or scientists or mothers or teachers are completely ignored in order to cast the book this way as something written to soothe the egos only of business executives. In fact, it should appeal to anyone who takes pride in what they do.

The industrial world setting in Atlas Shrugged was appropriate to the times and the obvious choice for a writer from the Soviet Union whose parents' business was confiscated and the obvious choice for that plotline in general. That doesn't mean these are automatically supposed to be the only heroic or smart people in society. What analogy can you think of that would work for academic physicists? A lowly unaccomplished scientist sues the Nobel committee for recognition for a discovery he had nothing to do with on the grounds that scientific prestige should be distributed equally? Yeah right...

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Economic systems with cows

Thanks to Economists Do It With Models, here's an updated-for-the-financial-crisis version of an email that went around when I was in middle school. Surrealism still makes me nearly die so I wanted to share...
You have 2 cows. You give one to your neighbor.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both and gives you some milk.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both and sells you some milk.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both and shoots you.
You have 2 cows. The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away…
You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.
You have two giraffes. The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.
You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow has dropped dead.
You have two cows. You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows. The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company. The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more. You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States, leaving you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the release. The public then buys your bull.
You have two cows. You go on strike, organize a riot and block the roads because you want three cows.
You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. You then create a clever cow cartoon image called ‘Cowkimon’ and market it worldwide.
You have two cows. You re-engineer them so they live for 100 years, eat once a month, and milk themselves.
You have two cows, but you don’t know where they are. You decide to have lunch.
You have two cows. You count them and learn you have five cows. You count them again and learn you have 42 cows. You count them again and learn you have 2 cows. You stop counting cows and open another bottle of vodka.
You have 5000 cows. None of them belong to you. You charge the owners for storing them.
You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim that you have full employment and high bovine productivity. You arrest the newsman who reported the real situation.
You have two cows. You worship them.
You have two cows. Both are mad.
Everyone thinks you have lots of cows. You tell them that you have none. No one believes you, so they bomb the **** out of you and invade your country. You still have no cows, but at least now you are part of Democracy….
You have two cows. Business seems pretty good. You close the office and go for a few beers to celebrate.
You have two cows. The one on the left looks very attractive.