Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Death Valley

What to do when you have a four-day weekend but the Sierras are snowed under? Backpacking in Death Valley! Where the weather is sunny and beautiful exactly when everything else isn't, and the landscape hides a cornucopia of treasures to satisfy the most voracious wilderness junkie.

First you can go for a hike on some sand dunes:

Then, the badlands:

And an enormous plain of salt boulders:

And canyonlands:

And even some snow-capped mountaintops, towering twice the height of the grand canyon above the valley below:

It doesn't get better than that. And did I mention you can camp anywhere, for free, without a permit, as long as you're at least 2 miles from the paved road? And that the park is huge?

Monday, November 28, 2011

perilously, empiricism verges on magic

In my awesome junior high gifted-ed class we studied the Kennedy assassination, and I've had a residual fascination with that universe of conspiracy theories since then. Turns out one of my favorite writers, John Updike, had something to say about it in the New Yorker in 1967. My friend Dan kindly provided me the text, which is (bittersweetly) short enough to quote here:
We used to think that only the vagueness and enchantment of distance could create mythical figures; now, after reading Josiah Thompson's "micro-study" of the Kennedy assassination, entitled "Six Seconds in Dallas," we conclude that closeness of scrutiny is also mythopoeic. For example, "the umbrella man": though the day was clear and blowy, he can be detected, in photographs, standing on the curh just about where the assassination would in a few seconds occur, holding a black umbrella above him; seconds later he is again photographed, walking away, gazing tranquilly at the scramble of horrified spectators. His umbrella is now furled. Who was he? Where is he now? And would any crowd, caught in the matrix of interlocking photographs taken in those few momentous seconds in Dealey Plaza, yield a figure or two equally anomalous and ominous? He dangles around history's neck like a fetish. And what of the other substanceless figures sifted from the clouds of witnesses: "the tan-coated man," seen now running away from the Texas School Book Depository Building, now riding in a gray Rambler driven by a Negro; and "the Secret Service agent," who identified himself to Patrolman Smith hehind the stockade fence, though all Secret Service men had gone to Parkland Hospital; and eeriest of all-the blurry figure visible, in some frames of Robert Hughes' 8-mm. movie film, in the window beside the pair of windows from which the shots, or some of the shots, were fired? We wonder whether a genuine mystery is being concealed here or whether any similar scrutiny of a minute oection of time and space would yield similar strangenesses-gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance. Perhaps, as with the elements of matter, investigation passes a threshold of common sense and enters a sub-atomic realm where laws are mocked, where persons have the life-span of beta particles and the transparency of neutrinos, and where a rough kind of averaging out must substitute for the absolute truth. The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic. 
Isn't that wonderful, both in content and conveyance? That's Updike for you.

Updike was the master of the microstudy in the fictional realm; I wish somehow the story of those six seconds could be told via his voice. But possibly even better than that, it turns out that one of my favorite film directors, Errol Morris*, has done just that, in his new six-minute documentary "The Umbrella Man", with the author of Six Seconds in Dallas referenced above. (Psst, the umbrella man himself shows up.) Fantastic. Go watch.

*you MUST see Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control if you have any interest at all in the defining boundaries and limitations of our humanity. Or just really great cinematography (so great that even I can identify it...)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

behavioral economics in action

The New Yorker says "Buy access to the article you're looking for and you'll receive the entire December 9, 1967 issue".

Instead of "In order to access the article you're looking for, you have to pay for the entire issue."

(For 5.99 for one year of access... You don't need reference dependence or loss aversion to explain that one, i.e. the price differential between buying the magazine now and buying a single article from half a century ago, but I suspect they play real roles there too.)

(I swear I have other tools than prospect theory. There just really are so many nails.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

grammar of think different

Jeff at cheap talk says
Here’s how Steve Jobs explains “Think Different” as quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography (thanks to Mallesh Pai for the pointer.)
We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ”Think differently” wouldn’t hit the same meaning for me.
I may have been taken in by the GDF but after thinking about this for a day or so I am convinced that I understand what he means, even if he didn’t explain it very well. Constructions like “think X” are used all the time where X is a noun and what the writer really means is “think about X” or “consider X” and especially “join the X movement.” (Think “Think Green”, a familiar slogan that is saying “be enviornmentally conscious.” ) “Eat Local” has a different interpretation than “Eat Locally” which would not make sense in its stead. For that matter, “Think Locally, Act Globally” suffers from excessive adherence to grammatical rules. What “Think Different” was supposed to convey is essentially “be a member of Team Different.” But I am sure that was lost on most people and has nothing to do with why it was a successful campaign.
Why is this so complicated?? "Think different" uses "different" as a noun (and maybe silently implies some punctuation that would clarify that). That's all. Like many people, I love grammar (I'm even particularly particular about adverbs!), but it's much more fun to play with (even abuse) its flexibility than to pounce on alleged mistakes and then triumphantly award yourself a gold star.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


As much as I am bored by and lack respect for Occupy*, I much much more strongly oppose any intervention in the right to peaceably assemble (or peaceably do anything else for that matter.)

And I really REALLY oppose cops on power trips (is that redundant?) who think they have (or worse, have) the power to use unnecessary physical force to maintain the peace.

Students linking arms isn't an excuse to use force, and I don't want to pay taxes that go towards tear-gassing my friends on their bike rides home from work. So I signed this.

Law enforcement is so disturbingly corrupt and abusive in urban America. I wish there was a petition that would fix that (rather than just the university administration reaction to it...)

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Set aside** for the moment the merits of the arguments/complaints made by Occupy*.

Like many campus protests, this is fundamentally a movement of bored (unemployed) people desperately looking for anything to blame their frustrations on and get angry about in a somewhat active way. Even if they have to invent problems to get riled up about, they're bored enough to do so. And so, like this ridiculous rioting over the firing of a football coach, these stories fill me with leaden ennui.

I just don't get it. What do Berkeley students hope to accomplish by forming a mob for a few hours? By intentionally stirring up trouble, looking for ways to get maced and arrested? Being able to tell heroic-sounding stories about standing up to the Man? Do they hope that from a distance it's less obvious what's really going on, that it appears sincerely desperate? Because from downtown Oakland and the campus of U.C. Berkeley, I can tell you it sure doesn't. Do they hope that by acting out the story, history will make it real?

*Haha did you think that was a footnote marker? .... er wait.

**Sure, it's impossible to entirely disentangle my interpretation of the sociological phenomenon from my interpretation of their complaints. I can't get riled up about a few people getting rich in small part because some systemic issue amplifies the returns to their hard work in some way that other people call unfair. I just don't care that some people who are enormously rich by worldwide standards are upset that a few others are even richer. Maybe that colors my interpretation of anyone who does.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

mind your p's and q's (still more on self-fulfilling beliefs)

If you believe you've failed, you have.

I don't think I can put it more simply than that. So remember that.

In substance, this doesn't add anything to what I've previously harped on. And yet I'm so continually shocked to see so much self-fulfilled failure that I keep wanting to harp more.

I think part of the problem is that the inverse statement is decidedly false, and a little crazy-wishful-thinking-hippie sounding (i.e., "If you believe you can succeed, you will."). And, since we are not very good at automatically recognizing that contrapositives, not inverses or converses, are the truths that are equivalent to any if-then statement, we are too quick to dismiss the crucial inverse of the crazy hippie poster slogan.

Yet another reason to replace the relatively useless bits of high school curricula with logic, probability and statistics, and economics...

For the record, if p implies q, then not-q implies not-p. But q does not imply p, nor does not-p imply not-q. Within this example, if you believe you have failed, you have. Therefore, if you haven't failed, you must still believe you can succeed - the contrapositive. But, if you fail, it doesn't mean that you just stopped believing in yourself - the converse. And it doesn't mean that if you believe in yourself, you will succeed - the inverse. Don't be embarrassed if you were never taught this; you're in the vast majority. Just get it straight now and please spread the sanity.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


I love octupuses. Great story*.
"octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles—a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees." 
" The four-hundred-gallon tank was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But even though students hammered in dividers, the octopuses found ways to dig beneath them—and eat each other. Or they’d mate, which is equally lethal. Octopuses die after mating and laying eggs, but first they go senile, acting like a person with dementia. “They swim loop-the-loop in the tank, they look all googly-eyed, they won’t look you in the eye or attack prey,” Warburton said. One senile octopus crawled out of the tank, squeezed into a crack in the wall, dried up, and died." 
"Some would let themselves be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh and onto the floor—and then run for it. Yes, run. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” " 
"Octopuses in captivity actually escape their watery enclosures with alarming frequency. While on the move, they have been discovered on carpets, along bookshelves, in a teapot, and inside the aquarium tanks of other fish—upon whom they have usually been dining." 
*overanthropomorphized, but I'm kind of ok with that. Little else is so effective at getting the human race to care about the rest of the natural world...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

college is oversold

This is a truly striking chart:

Read the whole excellent post, by Alex Tabarrok of MR.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

comparative advantage

Someone dared me to write a limerick about comparative advantage, since I said too close together that 1) I'd take suggestions for entertaining limerick topics, and 2) that economics is a tragically unfunny subject. Months later while trying to fall asleep*, this is what I came up with...**

There once was a locavore named Hugh
who learned in an Eskimo igloo:
an advantage comparative
is an advantage imperative
when you only have ice for your stew.

Other suggestions/requests?***

*or rather, the day after while roughly reconstructing what occurred to me while trying to fall asleep... never believe yourself that you'll remember in the morning.

**this doesn't illustrate the most important / misunderstood aspects of comparative advantage, but give me a break, it's a limerick...

***I already did "Darwin's barnacles" but I can't post that one online. Ask me in person ;)