Monday, November 30, 2009

On the changing nature of software ownership; with a digression on horniness and the troubling interdependence of human beings

Sometime in the late 1990's, I realized that "ownership" of software had become meaningless.

Well, OK, I didn't grasp the full implications at the time. But the seed was planted when I was downloading the third or fourth or tenth macro virus protection patch for Microsoft Word 95 or Word 97. Maybe it was for my family's computer, or a friend's; or maybe it was for mine. I don't remember exactly.

However, I do remember being troubled by the implications of what I was doing. Ownership carries connotations of permanence, and the reassurance of physical possession: You own this, so no one can take this away from you. And I could indeed purchase a disc, containing a piece of software, which no one could take away from me. But this software had bugs, which made it vulnerable to security exploits; and I still needed to open files created by other people. This, in turn, implied that I needed to continue downloading updates for as long as I used the software. Even if I saved all updates available at any given time onto another disc, I would still be vulnerable to new exploits discovered later unless I returned to the mothership for more.

Therefore, unless I was willing to live a completely isolated existence, never accepting anyone else's data, I would always be dependent on the software's manufacturer.

And how long would they continue to provide updates? The answer was clearly "not forever". A few years later, a more precise answer came, in the form of Microsoft's Support Lifecycle Policy, which guarantees security patches for a certain number of years depending on the type of the product.

So, when I "bought" software, I was really paying for an implicit, limited-time support contract with the manufacturer. Without this ongoing relationship, my software would rot to the point of uselessness, as surely as a tomato on a blighted vine.

And the turn of the century also brought a new and particularly blighted vine for your software to rot on: the broadband Internet connection. Whereas before, viruses spread through casual sharing of floppy disks and occasionally file shares on your local network, a broadband Internet connection literally exposes your machine continuously to the cleverest and most malicious hacker in the entire world. And so it is that today, a vulnerable machine becomes infected within minutes of being connected to the Internet (on a non-firewalled network).

Lest the Mac or Free Software weenies (n.b. I am both) start gloating about the inferiority of Microsoft software, I hasten to point out that every nontrivial software system has a similar update schedule. How often must Ubuntu users run sudo apt-get update? How often does Firefox issue a point release? How often do Mac or iWhatever users get told to run Apple Software Update?

Therefore, software updates are an inescapable, relentless fact of Internet-connected life.

And security exploits are just the most obvious and unavoidable source of bit rot. Consider what happens when the organization — company or community, formal or informal — behind your favorite software decides to move on to the next version of a data format or protocol, and you decline to upgrade. New web pages stop being viewable; you stop being able to watch videos, play music, read documents, chat with friends, or really do anything involving other people.

Of course, you can choose to live like a virtual hermit, never sharing anything with anyone. But this comes with the same drawbacks as being a hermit in the physical world. Gains from trade and specialization of labor aren't just abstractions. Buying a jug of milk at the grocery store takes far less effort than raising and milking a cow. In some cases the difference isn't even a matter of effort but of possibility: it is impossible for an individual to manufacture an airplane, or even something as humble as an aluminum can, without relying on a massive infrastructure of manufacturing, transport, and trade provided by society. And likewise it is impossible for you to singlehandedly fork the Firefox source code, in any nontrivial way, if Mozilla takes it in a direction you don't like. (You might be able to publish an initial fork, but there's no way you'd be able to keep up with Mozilla; eventually they'd be adding critical features faster than you, and your fork would fall into the dustbin of history.)

And then there's the fact that your hardware will wear out or go obsolete, and your software will need to be ported to new hardware.

In short, your software lives in a continuously changing ecosystem of data. And you are inescapably dependent on other people to evolve that software in response to environmental changes in that ecosystem.

Therefore, while you may still "own" your software in some formal sense, that ownership means little in any practical sense. What matters is the organization that maintains your software, and your ongoing relationship to them. You're not (merely) paying for access to a passive bundle of data; you're actually making a calculated bet on the future behavior of a group of people.

At this point I'll show my colors and claim that, in the long run, open source projects with open governance structures offer more credible maintenance promises than proprietary systems. But that's a subject for a whole other set of posts. In the meantime, I offer two final nuggets, in the way of provoking thought.

First, yes, this post is a stealth followup to my previous post on ChromeOS punditry.

Second, I offer the following excerpt from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, concerning autistic World War II cryptographer and Naval xylophonist Lawrence Waterhouse:

Waterhouse has been chewing his way through exotic Nip code systems at the rate of about one a week, but after he sees Mary Smith in the parlor of Mrs. McTeague's boarding house, his production rate drops to near zero. Arguably, it goes negative, for sometimes when he reads the morning newspaper, its plaintext scrambles into gibberish before his eyes, and he is unable to extract any useful information.

Despite his and Turing's agreements about whether the human brain is a Turing machine, he has to admit that Turing wouldn't have too much trouble writing a set of instructions to simulate the brain functions of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse.

Waterhouse seeks happiness. He achieves it by breaking Nip code systems and playing the pipe organ. But since pipe organs are in short supply, his happiness level ends up being totally dependent on breaking codes.

He cannot break codes (hence, cannot be happy) unless his mind is clear . . . Clarity of mind (Cm) is affected by any number of factors, but by far the most important is horniness, which might be designated by σ, for obvious anatomical reasons that Waterhouse finds amusing at this stage of his emotional development.

Horniness begins at zero at time t = t0 (immediately following ejaculation) and increases from there as a linear function of time:

σ α (t - t0)

The only way to drop it back to zero is to arrange another ejaculation.

. . .

Now, when he was at Pearl Harbor, he discovered something that, in retrospect, should have been profoundly disquieting. Namely, that ejaculations obtained in a whorehouse (i.e., provided by the ministrations of an actual human female) seemed to drop σ below the level that Waterhouse could achieve through executing a Manual Override. In other words, the post-ejaculatory horniness level was not always equal to zero, as the naive theory propounded above assumes, but to some other quantity dependent on whether the ejaculation was induced by Self or Other: σ = σself after masturbation but σ = σother upon leaving a whorehouse, where σself > σother, an inequality to which Waterhouse's notable successes in breaking certain Nip naval codes at Station Hypo were directly attributable, in that the many convenient whorehouses nearby made it possible for him to go somewhat longer between ejaculations.

. . .

If he had thought about this, it would have bothered him, because σself > σother has troubling implications . . . If it weren't for this inequality, then Waterhouse could function as a totally self-contained and independent unit. But σself > σother implies that he is, in the long run, dependent on other human beings for his mental clarity, and, therefore, his happiness. What a pain in the ass!

I leave the connective tissue between the above passage and the rest of this post as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On "tricks" and science

Are people really claiming that the word "trick", when used by climate scientists to describe a data analysis technique via a mailing list for other climate scientists, indicates some nefarious conspiracy of deception? Why yes, they are, and Acephalous has the rebuttal:

Global warming skeptics are attacking climate scientist Phil Jones for encouraging trickery in an email recently stolen off the webmail server at the University of East Anglia in which he wrote:

I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.

Over at RealClimate, the skeptical response to the word "trick" is to treat it as a colloquial:

“a cunning or deceitful action or device; “he played a trick on me”; “he pulled a fast one and got away with it”
“Something designed to fool or swindle; ”
“flim-flam: deceive somebody; “We tricked the teacher into thinking that class would be cancelled next week”

. . .

Schmidt obliges:

. . . It's mostly used in mathematics, for instance in decomposing partial fractions, or deciding whether a number is divisible by 9 etc.etc.etc.

The skeptics rejoinder:

This is nonsense. Both are examples of teaching or explaining concepts to lay people. The first intentionally places “tricks” in quotations marks to emphasize its non-technical use.

The problem with nonspecialists reading the private correspondence of experts is that their ignorance transforms all the technical points into nefarious inkblots. To continue with the example above, skeptical nonspecialists encounter the word "trick" and ask for clarification. Schmidt provides evidence that the word is innocuous, but because nonspecialists can interpret neither the context of the original nor that of the further examples, they redouble their efforts: now the rhetorical situation in which the word "trick" is uttered matters; now the appearance of quotation marks matters, etc. They are convincing themselves that those black blobs represent what they insist they represent, and when experts inform them that those are not Rorschach blots to be subjectively interpreted—that they are, in fact, statements written in a language that skeptics simply do not understand—the nonspecialists look over them again and declare that it could be a butterfly, or maybe a bat.

For the programmers out there, this is a little like finding a comment in some random piece of program source code

// Hack: just disassemble the whole tree for now

and concluding that the author of the software is attempting to "hack" your password.

The word "trick", like the word "hack", is a term of art with an esoteric meaning different from its lay meaning. And no, "trick" does not denote either a deception or a way of "teaching concepts to lay people". See, for example, the tricks on Terence Tao's blog. Can anybody seriously believe that this amplification trick is "a way of explaining math to laypeople"? Well, I guess they can, if they're shooting their mouths off without having the least fucking clue what they're talking about.

So, OK, what does trick mean? Well, C. Shalizi's review of Tao's book gives a reasonable definition:

Tao’s third theme is tricks: patterns of establishing results that replicate across many situations, but in which any one result is too small to be a theorem in its own right, while the general pattern is too vague. These are an important part of how math actually gets done, but by their nature they tend not to have a recognized place in the curriculum, getting passed down by oral tradition, or by being absorbed by those who are lucky enough not only to run across a paper using the trick, but also to guess that it will generalize. There are numerous tricks throughout the book, and one of the nicest chapters, 1.9, expounds a family of tricks for improving inequalities, which Tao calls amplification.

Although, to be more precise, the climate scientists in question do not seem to be using the word "trick" in its narrowest mathematical sense, but rather in the more general sense of a useful technique — however, again, usually one too small to be publishable on its own [0] [1].

Incidentally, this sort of irresponsible misreading shows how little most climate change "skeptics" on the Internet know about math or science. Why the heck would I lend credence to people who don't know jack about scientific practice, and cannot be bothered to learn, and still feel comfortable dismissing thousands of working scientists as frauds? And especially why would I believe them over scientific professionals who have dedicated their lives to studying the data?

I mean, yesterday I got a comment on my previous post on climate change denialism saying:

Models that can exhibit large errors tend to exhibit them in the direction that the modellers would prefer. That's why real sciences use double-blind testing.

Anyone who doesn't know what results climate "scientists" are looking for isn't paying attention.

"Real" sciences use "double-blind testing"? O RLY? No wai! Blind testing, of either the single- or double- variety, is irrelevant to most experiments in the natural sciences. I would like to know what "double-blind" even means for a microarray assay; are we not informing the microscopic dots of DNA whether we've hybridized them or not? Are we getting them to sign little microscopic release forms and giving them little microscopic placebo pills?

If most researchers in the natural sciences even had to single-blind every experiment they do, they'd never get anything done. Natural science labwork is often incredibly laborious and grad students do not have time to, like, close their eyes and spin a little roulette wheel of test tubes every time they pipette a drop of reagent. The usual way to weed out observer bias is by (1) designing experimental methods which are relatively robust to observer influence; (2) repeating your experiments; and (3) describing a procedure in sufficient detail for other sufficiently trained people to reproduce the result. Blind experimentation is reserved for certain types of experiments where observer or subject bias is especially dangerous or probable.

As for the email the commenter links to, I find it hard to see anything suspicious about it. Here's an excerpt:

The Soon & Baliunas paper couldn't have cleared a 'legitimate' peer review process anywhere. That leaves only one possibility--that the peer-review process at Climate Research has been hijacked by a few skeptics on the editorial board.

. . .

[In quoted reply:] I looked briefly at the paper last night and it is appalling - worst word I can think of today without the mood pepper appearing on the email ! . . . The phrasing of the questions at the start of the paper determine the answer they get. They have no idea what multiproxy averaging does. By their logic, I could argue 1998 wasn't the warmest year globally, because it wasn't the warmest everywhere. With their LIA being 1300-1900 and their MWP 800-1300, there appears (at my quick first reading) no discussion of synchroneity of the cool/warm periods. Even with the instrumental record, the early and late 20th century warming periods are only significant locally at between 10-20% of grid boxes.

I'll freely admit that I don't know what the jargon means, but "they have no idea what X does" is not a phrasing I'd ever have wanted to read in a review of a paper of mine. This is not prima facie evidence of anything but that some journal published a bad paper.

And subversion of publication venues by cranks is actually an everpresent danger in the sciences. Do climate change denialists really believe that concern over a journal's publishing trash is evidence of a groupthink conspiracy? No doubt they'll be taking up the heroic cause of M. S. El Naschie next.

[0] The notion of "trick" seems loosely related to what the C.S. community calls a "pearl", except that pearls are perhaps more rigidly described, and computer scientists publish them in some venues regardless (e.g. ICFP). Truthfully the "unpublishability" of tricks and other semi-formal knowledge seems like a flaw in scientific publishing, albeit one that blogs and other Internet-based venues may be correcting.

[1] It's not even unheard-of for laypeople to use the word "trick" in roughly this sense. See: Clemenza's recipe from The Godfather. I look forward to climate skeptics' exegesis of the diabolical agenda behind Clemenza's spaghetti sauce.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Pro tip for ChromeOS punditry

Full disclosure: I work for Google, although this blog reflects my personal opinions only.

Please don't pontificate about ChromeOS until you grok the long-term implications of Web Storage, Native Client, Open3D/WebGL, Courgette, and a large local disk cache. Oh, and, of course, Moore's Law.

And if you can't work out the implications, at least talk to someone who can, before you hit the "Post" button. You might still think that ChromeOS is a bad idea, but at least you'll be critical in a more clueful way.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Software patents have tangible costs for innovation, and for you

I have a friend who's been working extremely hard on a small software startup for the past few years. He and his partner developed a genuinely innovative, original technology which solves a useful problem for end-users and probably has significant commercial value. The technology has been integrated into a website that is awesomely functional and and even fun to use. (I'd point you there, except that I'm going to discuss legal matters shortly and I think it's better not to identify the parties by name.)

His startup recently got sued for patent infringement by a company that independently developed a product that performs a vaguely similar function. This other company's product is much less sophisticated, and their user-facing site is an ugly, user-hostile pile of crap. The term "search arbitrage" would be a kind word to apply to this other company's product. And there is absolutely no sense in which my friend's work builds on any of this other company's technology.

Now, my friend and his partner have consulted multiple IP lawyers and they've said, "Yep, the law is probably on your side." They have also said, "You're still screwed." The trial would take forever, the legal fees would be ruinous, and in the meantime nobody will invest in a company which has a litigation cloud hanging over it.

So, this sucks for my friend and his partner. More importantly, this sucks for you, because, having seen the product, I am 100% convinced that you, or someone you know, would love to have this technology acquired and integrated into a major site that you use.

This sort of story is not at all uncommon in the software industry. I've been meaning to tell it for a couple of weeks now, because it made me think of this post by Tim Lee about "libertarian political philosopher" Richard Epstein's bold claim in an amicus brief* that:

The credible threat of a published patent’s right to exclude acts like a beacon in the dark, drawing to itself all those interested in the patented subject matter. This beacon effect motivates those diverse actors to interact with one another and with the patentee, starting conversations among the relevant parties.

In response, Tim writes:

There’s nothing beacon-like about software patents. Software companies do not use patents as a mechanism for finding technologies or business partners. Patents tend to be written in unintelligible legalese, they’re not well indexed, and they issue years after they’re filed. They’re completely irrelevant to the day-to-day process of product development in the software industry. I’ve never met a software developer who regards the patent database as a useful source of information about software inventions, nor can I think of an example of a software company (Intellectual Ventures doesn’t count) that uses patents as a central part of its product-development strategy.

Completely true, except that Tim does not go nearly far enough. At any software company with competent legal counsel, developers are instructed in the strongest possible terms never, ever to look at a patent, because the tiniest amount of documented influence could be used as ammunition in a lawsuit. The only time a sane software developer reads a patent is when your company's lawyers specifically ask you to help them prove you're not infringing on one. If you ever get wind that there's a patent even vaguely related to your work, you stick your fingers in your ears and run in the other direction. In short, software patents facilitate "conversation" about as well as poison gas bombs do.

One thing that I find extremely frustrating about many legal scholars' and economists' approach to patents is that they make two false assumptions. The first assumption is that transaction costs are acceptable, or can be made so with some modest reforms. The second assumption is that patent litigation is reasonably "precise"; i.e., if you don't infringe on something then you'll be able to build useful technology and bring it to market relatively unhindered. As my friend's story shows, both of these assumptions are laughably false. I mean, just black-is-white, up-is-down, slavery-is-freedom, we-have-always-been-at-war-with-Eastasia false.

The end result is that our patent system encourages "land grab" behavior which could practically serve as the dictionary definition of rent-seeking. The closest analogy is to a conquistador planting a flag on a random outcropping of rock at the tip of some peninsula, and then saying "I claim all this land for Spain", and then the entire Western hemisphere allegedly becomes the property of the Spanish crown. This is a theory of property that's light-years away from any Lockean notion of mixing your labor with the land or any Smithian notion of promoting economic efficiency. And yet it's the state of the law for software patents. Your business plan can literally be to build a half-assed implementation of some straightforward idea (or, in the case of Intellectual Ventures, don't build it at all), file a patent, and subsequently sue the pants off anybody who comes anywhere near the turf you've claimed. And if they do come near your turf, regardless of how much of their own sweat and blood they put into their independent invention, the legal system's going go off under them like a land mine.

It is hard to think of a more effective mechanism for discouraging innovation in software. I mean, I suppose you could plant a plastic explosive rigged to a random number generator under the seats of every software developer, and that would be slightly worse.

* To be fair, the amicus brief is not completely Epstein's work; it is the sworn work of one Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty and coauthored with lawyer F. Scott Kieff. I don't really know how these things work, but I assume that Epstein agrees with the argument laid out even if he's not the lone progenitor of it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Gross Pointe Blank is a great movie

So I'm watching this again, and I can't believe I ever thought it was merely OK. The skill with which it deftly weaves together irreverent humor, pathos, and even wisdom has rarely been equaled in turn-of-the-century film; maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes close, although the latter ultimately takes itself so seriously that it loses some of its dexterity.

A partial list of virtues of GPB:

  • The scene where Martin Blank (John Cusack) revisits his old home address to the tune of Guns 'n Roses' Live and Let Die never ceases to be hilarious.
  • The awkward tension between Martin and Debi (Minnie Driver) hits this perfect compound of emotional veracity and factual implausibility. No meet-cutes or other boilerplate infrastructure of romantic comedy here; we just get an international hit man coming home to chase down an old ex-girlfriend. Boom, there it is. Deal with it. And yet it feels more real than any number of superficially more "realist" entries in the genre.
  • Dan Aykroyd. Hit man. And somehow, against all odds, funny, for maybe the last time ever.
  • The degree of care evident in virtually every line of the script is astonishing. The dialogue is as dense and snappy as the best Coen brothers films. Even throwaway lines are frequently exceptional. (Waitress at diner: "...there's Gatsby's 'West Egg' Omelette..."; you might not even notice the line, yet observe how exactly this item, offered by the waitress at Martin's Midwestern (!) hometown diner, echoes the broader themes of the movie. Rather than ordering this, Martin opts for an omelette without filling.)
  • Two years before The Sopranos started turning the "emotionally disturbed criminal in a shrink's office" into a cliché, we get a criminal-in-a-shrink's-office setup that's funnier and more plausible than basically anything in The Sopranos' entire run, and also doesn't overstay its welcome.

I could go on and on, but basically, you should just go watch this movie again, with attention.

(However, I will admit that Debi's character, as written, veers close to being the mere projection of Martin's psychological needs, rather than a character in her own right. This is perhaps redeemed by Driver's performance.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

J. Holbo on hate crimes

At CT, J. Holbo kicks off a discussion of the moral and legal justifications for hate crimes legislation, and how calling it "thought crime" is basically ridiculous. Worth reading because (a) Holbo is uncharacteristically terse and (b) the comments thread's decent enough that I have little to add.

One can parse out a distinction between hate crimes legislation and other uses of mens rea in criminal law but, as the thread illustrates, it's an exceedingly fine line, and a much subtler one than is commonly supposed by the rhetoric of hate crimes legislation opponents. It's pretty clear, once you think this through, that the debate over hate crimes legislation is more "haggling over price" than some bright shining line of moral principle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Online dating and race at OKCupid

This recent post on the OKCupid blog has been widely linked, but since I covered this previously, at some length (also related), I feel obligated to post it.

If you have any interest in this subject, you'll no doubt read the whole thing, but if you need any further suasion, here are the key figures. Reply rates by race when men send messages...

...and reply rates by race when women send messages...

Read it and weep. (Or rejoice, I suppose, if you're in the favored classes and you guiltlessly enjoy racial privilege.)

BTW yes, they controlled for algorithmic match rate, which is essentially flat across all race/gender combinations (see the "Match % by Race" figure in the original post).

As usual, I find the result itself sad — I think this goes far beyond a moderate amount of understandable homophily (look at the diagonals!) — but what I find much more sad is the degree of self-deception that people engage in when discussing these results. Unfairness is annoying; deception about unfairness really brings on the facepalm.

See, for example, the 459-comment Metafilter thread, where about half the educated, literate, liberal MeFi crowd doesn't seem to get the following simple proposition: although diversity of aesthetic preferences, including preference for racially marked features, may be a simple personal choice, systematic statistical skew in aesthetic preferences across a large population strongly indicates socialization to racially biased standards of attractiveness.

Note, by the way, that racial preferences don't mean merely visual discrimination. The degree of racial discrimination is considerably stronger and more widespread for women than men, even though (as folk wisdom has it) women are less visually focused than men. (Personally, I think folk wisdom overstates this sex difference, but I do think it's real.) I think this implies that part of the racial discrimination effect — possibly even the dominant part — is due to people making assumptions about personality or character based on race, rather than preference for a certain physical appearance alone. Which is even more damning.

Standard caveats w.r.t. all such social science analyses apply blah blah blah. On the other hand, the fact that this result essentially replicates, at finer granularity, the results of the Hitsch et al. study I blogged previously, as well as anecdotal evidence gathered from friends and acquaintances, does not incline me to skepticism.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Coase and Pareto optimality illustrated

The Coase Theorem states that absent transaction costs, a Pareto efficient outcome will be arrived at regardless of the assignment of rights in an economic transaction. This theorem and its implications are a common source of confusion, which I attribute to the relatively dry examples typically used to illustrate the theorem --- commercial property easements, etc. Here is a more vivid illustration, which may clarify matters.

Suppose I want to shoot you in the face. With a gun. Suppose I value this experience at X dollars. Suppose, also, that you value your face at Y dollars. The Coase theorem predicts that both the outcome and the global welfare thereof will be the same regardless of whether

  1. I have the legal right to shoot you in the face.
  2. You have the legal right not to be shot in the face.

You can prove this by breaking it down into cases:

  1. Suppose Y > X; that is, you value your face more than I value shooting you in the face. Then consider the two possible assignments of rights:
    1. Suppose I have the right to shoot you in the face. Then you will pay me $X plus a penny not to shoot you in the face. Your welfare will be $Y - ($X plus a penny), and my welfare will be $X plus a penny. The total welfare will then be $Y - ($X plus a penny) + ($X plus a penny), or $Y.
    2. Suppose you have the right not to be shot in the face. Because Y > X, I will not pay you enough to let me shoot you in the face. You will have your face, which is worth $Y. I will have nothing. The total welfare between the two of us is then $Y.
    Notice that in both cases, you do not get shot in the face, and the total welfare is $Y.
  2. Suppose, on the other hand, that Y < X; that is, I want to shoot you in the face more than you value not being shot. Now consider the two subcases:
    1. Suppose I have the right to shoot you in the face. You will not be willing to pay me $X, because you only value your face at $Y. I will shoot you in the face. Your welfare will be -Y dollars. My welfare will be X dollars. In this case, the total welfare is $X - $Y.
    2. Suppose you have the right not to be shot in the face. Because Y < X, I will pay you $Y plus a penny to let me shoot you in the face. Your net welfare will be a penny, because you got shot in the face, but got paid $Y plus a penny. My welfare will be X minus Y dollars plus a penny. The total welfare between the two of us is $X - $Y, plus a penny minus a penny, which is $X - $Y.
    Notice that in both cases, you get shot in the face, and the total welfare is $X - $Y.

So, the outcomes are the same, and the total welfare is the same. Clearly, it does not matter whom we assign the rights to, right?

Right. Back here on Earth, any thinking person will be prompted to make a few observations.

First, although total welfare is the same, the balance of welfare may be dramatically different. Consider the difference between A.1 and A.2: if I have the right to shoot you in the face, you have to pay me not to; but if I do not, then you have to do nothing and you get to keep all your money. So the Coase Theorem says nothing whatsoever about distributional justice.

Second, you may observe that I have made an unwarranted assumption that the person being paid off in A.1 and B.2 will accept a mere penny extra to change his/her behavior. In fact, the person being paid off might observe that the welfare surplus (the difference between $X and $Y) can be larger than a penny, and bargain for a larger fraction of that surplus. Logically, the "buyer" in each case ought to be willing to pay the maximum price minus a penny. For example, if I value shooting you in the face at $X, I ought to be willing to pay $X minus a penny for the privilege of shooting you; in fact, every payment between $X minus a penny and $Y plus a penny is Pareto optimal and the Coase Theorem has nothing to say about how much money will actually get transferred. In practice, of course, this would be determined by social norms, unequal distribution of prior capital, and other "social" stuff that economists usually prefer to ignore the existence of.

Third, we have made no mention of "human" or "natural" rights. And indeed the Coase Theorem is a completely amoral observation about (an idealized model) of bargaining. I hope you believe it would be monstrous for society to give me the right to shoot you in the face, with your only recourse being to pay me off not to do it. The Coase Theorem tells us that both assignments are "efficient" (Pareto optimal). But of course there's a world of difference between the two.

So basically, the Coase Theorem is a cool little mathematical widget that, by itself, offers almost no guidance in real world policy questions. In combination with other concepts, it's no doubt a useful widget for economists. But when it appears unadorned in laypersons' rhetoric, its most common purpose, as far as I can tell, is to obscure fundamentally normative disagreements about distributional justice, social inequality, and moral principle. Mathematical concepts like Pareto optimality are objective --- they assume no particular moral values or social context --- but neither does a gun, and yet when somebody points a gun at your face there's no mistaking the malign intention.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why are so many IT workers climate change denialists?

Maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems that climate change denialism is even more common among programmer and sysadmin types than among engineers and applied scientists more generally. Without diving into climate science*, here are a few brief hypotheses.

  • Computers teach you to think in logic. Climate change modeling relies on the synthesis of a large number of statistical correlations rather than crisp rules of inference. Although logic and statistics are related (probability strictly generalizes logic, in a precise mathematical sense), a mind too narrowly conditioned to thinking in syllogisms may find it hard to reason statistically.
  • Computing workers spend a lot of time on the Internet, and are disproportionately likely to be white, male, and libertarian. Climate change denialism is seen as not only respectable but intellectually heroic by (a significant faction of) the tribe of white, male, libertarian Internet users. (Arguably this merely begs the question, however, as the direction of causality may go the other way.)
  • Computing workers are more socially isolated than people belonging to the same socioeconomic class. Because they spend less time around an intelligent, well-educated peer group, they are less socialized to defer to the knowledge of others.
  • Computing workers spend all their time around intricate machines which (a) they understand better than the general public, and (b) the general public has become heavily reliant upon. This breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds disrespect for expertise in general. Disrespect for climatologists is simply a special case of this phenomenon. This, however, is true of almost any profession involving specialized knowledge, from plumbing to physical therapy to nursing; so this factor might not prove decisive, except for the next bullet...
  • Computing workers are, on average, more "autistic" and less "empathetic" on the autism/empathy spectrum. That is, they are unusually incompetent at modeling the mental and emotional states of other people. As a result, they fail to place themselves in the shoes of professional climatologists. That is, they do not imagine that most professional climatologists have worked hard to become experts in an esoteric and demanding (which is to say nerdy) intellectual discipline; might be driven by passion and curiosity and a desire to get it right; might along the way have been exposed to vast volumes of knowledge with which the lay observer is not familiar. In short, it is much easier to view literally thousands of scientists worldwide as a species of fools, liars, and conspirators when one assumes that they are nothing like oneself. (I strongly suspect that fewer IT workers would be climate change denialists if they realized that climate scientists are natural science geeks like them, whereas the primary beneficiaries of climate change denialism are corporate suits who were probably shoving geeks into lockers in high school.)

*About which, er, you can say whatever you like, but I'm going to listen to this guy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cynicism about government does not help the libertarian cause

TLF has been much less interesting since Tim Lee left, and this piece by J. Harper is the sort of thing that is reducing my desire to keep the TLF feed in my Reader. I'm not going to address the ostensible main thesis of the piece, but I just want to comment on one aspect that strikes me as dramatically misguided:

I’m a person who notices premises, and Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement”—unvarnished access to government data—”is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

First, there's an elementary error of logic here. The proposition

"change" and "pushing faith in our political system off the cliff" are in opposition

does not in any way entail that

"improving faith in the political system" is the "only thing that qualifies as change"
Political change and faith in the political system are variables in a very high-dimensional space, and the observation that they converge at the origin does not entail that every single increase in one is correlated with an increase in the other. Or in less math-metaphorical terms, even if you grant Lessig's premise, there might be a large number of changes which slightly reduce faith in our political system, or hold faith in our political system constant, and this would still not contradict Lessig's statement. (N.b. I say this as someone who thinks that "faith" in our political system is about as misguided as any other kind of faith.)

But never mind that.

The point I really want to make is that Harper seems to think that cynicism about the political system is in some way helpful to the libertarian cause. I'm not exactly a libertarian but this strikes me as completely wrong. Cynicism breeds two things: (1) apathy and (2) shameless exploitation. A population that is truly cynical about politics leads to even greater disengagement plus even greater corruption than prevails in the ordinary course of government.

Libertarians are not cynical about politics. A true cynic would adopt the essentially nihilistic stance of today's Republican Party leadership, whose political strategy is basically

  • Use the government to enrich one's political allies.
  • Sabotage any attempt to use government as an instrument to enhance the general welfare.
  • Distract people from the former two points by a systematic campaign of deceitful propaganda relating to irrelevancies.

On the contrary, principled libertarians are in fact extremely idealistic about the possibility of government being reformed in ways that either enhance the general welfare (in the case of utilitarian libertarians) or are more respectful of the libertarian conception of natural rights (in the case of natural-rights libertarians).*

In short, true cynics either become players in the game or stop playing; libertarians hate the game. And hating the game requires a certain belief in the possibility of a better game. Basically, Harper seems to be deeply confused about the distinction between procedural and substantive liberalism.

Oh, all right, I'll say a little bit about the primary thesis of the piece. I don't read TNR and I don't want to start, but my view on transparency is more or less in line with Aaron Swartz's: exposure is necessary but it's not going to change things without the development of social practices and norms which increase civic engagement.

*Of course I disagree that actually existing libertarianism does either of these things but that doesn't have anything to do with how libertarians justify their own beliefs.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

T. B. Lee on journalism and the Innovator's Dilemma

T. B. Lee (not T. Berners-Lee) has a newish blog and it has proved excellent enough* that it exceeded my expectations (which were not low to begin with; & I'm not saying this because we're slightly acquainted). For example, this post on newspapers and journalism makes a point which I've never seen stated as clearly anywhere else (well, OK, just once, but it bears repeating):

If I ran the world, no one would be allowed to opine about the decline of the newspaper industry until they’d read The Innovator’s Dilemma. The web is so clearly a disruptive technology, and the newspaper industry is so clearly following the trajectory Christensen describes in his book, that it’s hard to think clearly about the process if you haven’t grasped Christensen’s key insights. To review, the key attribute of a disruptive technology is that when it’s introduced into the marketplace, it is cheaper but also markedly inferior to the incumbent technology, as judged by the criteria of the dominant technology’s customers. Internet-based news clearly fits this pattern. As newspaper people never tire of reminding us, Internet-based news outlets rarely have the resources to staff expensive foreign bureaus, conduct in-depth fact-checking, fly sports reporters to away games, hire teams of lawyers, and so on. If the Huffington Post or TechCrunch were judged as newspapers, they would be pretty lousy ones.

What we learn from The Innovator’s Dilemma is this state of affairs is completely normal when a disruptive technology invades an established industry. . . . So newspaper partisans are absolutely right to point out that newspapers continue to be superior to online news sources in a number of respects. But they’re completely wrong to think this can save them.

More along those lines in the full post. Plus a neat coda on how C. M. Christenson was unfortunately kind of a sellout (or at least naïvely optimistic), which probably isn't said often enough.

*N.b. this does not mean I agree with Tim all of the time, or even most of the time. But the relevant mark of quality here is that even when I disagree with the argument, I usually find it both (a) thought-provoking and (b) neither stupid nor hackish.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Brill on New York City public schools

In this week's New Yorker; read it all and weep. Now, I'm pretty damn liberal, and sympathetic to unions in general — I once marched in a picket line as a member of UAW Local 4121 — but this piece had me frothing for the blood of New York City teacher's unions. As of this moment, I am a supporter of rapid expansion of charter schools everywhere; the sooner the better.

The most maddening thing about the whole conversation is not even the blatant terribleness of the teachers profiled, or the waste of taxpayer money, or the harm to students, but the disingenuousness of the union representatives*:

[Former United Federation of Teachers president] Rudy Weingarten . . . always tries to link the welfare of teachers to the welfare of those they teach — as in "what's good for teachers is what's good for children."

[New York City Department of Education deputy chancellor, Chris] Cerf's response is that "this is not about teachers; it is about children." He says, "We all agree with the idea that it is better that ten guilty men go free than that one innocent person be imprisoned. But by laying that on to a process of disciplining teachers you put the risk of the kids versus putting it on an occasional innocent teacher losing a job. For the union, it's better to protect one thousand teachers than to wrongly accuse one."

. . .

Should a thousand bad teachers stay put so that one innocent teacher is protected? "That's not a question we should be answering in education," Weingarten said to me. "Teachers who are treated fairly are better teachers. You can't have a situation that is fear-based. . . . That is why we press for due process."

Notice how Weingarten completely dodges the question of the cost/benefit tradeoff. Apparently accountability for teachers is synonymous with "fear", and that's unacceptable, full stop.

Sorry, but around the time I became an adult, I realized that, although being held responsible for my actions can produce a variety of emotions, including occasionally fear, this was simply the nature of holding responsibility.

And although it may be better for ten or even a thousand guilty people to go free than for one innocent person be imprisoned, there is surely some number of guilty people going free at which the balance tips. No reasonable justice system can be infallibly free of false convictions; therefore, by allowing a justice system to exist at all, we implicitly acknowledge that some number of wrongful convictions is a price worth paying for protecting society. And that's when the price of a false conviction is putting people in jail. When the cost is merely forcing people to find another job, the balance certainly tilts towards removing more guilty people and occasionally harming an innocent teacher.

It would be one thing for Weingarten to make an argument about where the balance lies, as an empirical matter, in the case of teachers. But she doesn't do that. She simply denies the premise of the question.

And, of course, the willful denial of transparently obvious logic is a huge red flag in any argument. People deny logic when they fear its conclusions, which is to say that they fear truth itself, which is to say that they are both holding an indefensible position, and also aware, on some level, that they're holding an indefensible position. The only remaining question in such cases is whether, in addition to misleading their audience, they're deceiving themselves as well.

Incidentally, this all leads me to wonder if intransigence will ultimately prove counterproductive for teachers' unions in the long run. Treating one's audience the way Weingarten does is insulting to their intelligence; and insulting people is not, as a rule, a good strategy for gaining their support.** I mean, I'm now sufficiently incensed that I'd donate a decent chunk of change annually to any organization that could credibly promise to accomplish nothing at all besides undermining the political power of teachers' unions.

Finally, I should add that the existence of bad teachers is no secret among actual classroom teachers. I was at dinner a couple of weeks ago with a couple of teachers in the Oakland, CA school system and they know who the goofballs are. Talk to a good public school teacher for about twenty minutes about the other teachers at their school, and see if you don't see them roll their eyes about someone or other. Maybe they don't believe that all borderline teachers should be fired, but among good teachers (particularly younger ones) I suspect that you'd find a fair amount of support for booting bad teachers with a much less ridiculously onerous process than currently prevails in New York City.

p.s. If you harbor some suspicion that Brill's article is unfairly slanted due to his haute-bourgeois disdain for the unionized classes, see this Village Voice article which examines a small slice of the same issue. The Voice ain't what it used to be, but anti-liberal it is not. And the union doesn't really come out smelling like roses there either.

*Yes, all of these things are more objectively harmful than the union representatives' disingenuousness; I'm just saying that the latter just pushes my personal buttons more.

**This observation may seem ironic because I insult people on this blog all the time. However, I'm mostly indifferent to the support of those whom I insult.

Friday, August 07, 2009

SFO breakfast receipts (en route to EWR)

Spot the funny.

How destructive was Ozymandias's bomb in Watchmen (the movie)?

Attention conservation notice: nitpicky analysis of a detail that you probably don't care about, from some comic book movie.

Finally saw Watchmen on video (missed it in theaters). I noticed something curious about the final explosion. It is clearly centered on Times Square, and produces a perfectly spherical blast; but in a later shot, the Empire State Building is not only standing but largely intact.

From this, we can infer that the explosion's radius of destruction was less than a dozen or so north/south blocks.

View Larger Map

This got me thinking: how big is this explosion, compared to an actual nuclear bomb blast?

According to HYDESim, a 25-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated at Times Square would exert just enough overpressure at the Empire State Building site to demolish a concrete skyscraper. For comparison, according to the the Ground Zero simulator, the "Little Boy" nuclear weapon detonated over Hiroshima sixty-four years ago was 15 kilotons; if detonated over Times Square, it would have blown the windows out of the Empire State Building, but the structure would probably not be knocked down.

So Ozymandias's bombs appear to create a pressure blast about as powerful as that from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II.

The nuclear weapons possessed by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the 1980's were, of course, vastly more destructive, on the order of hundreds of kilotons; and would have been delivered as batches of multiple simultaneous warheads.

Wikimedia Commons image by U.S. Army; source

Now, regarding Ozymandias's bombs, it's possible that radiation killed many people outside the direct blast radius. But there's no indication in the movie that Dr. Manhattan's electromagnetic emissions are harmful to human life. In my opinion, if one takes the movie strictly on its own terms, Ozymandias has been careful to engineer a relatively small mass-destruction event: only on the scale of a small fission bomb.

Of course, step outside of the movie's fiction, and it seems equally likely that director Zach Snyder simply assumed that most viewers would not be too familiar with the geography of New York. So he had Ozymandias set off the bomb in Times Square, because it's instantly recognizable, and then he left the Empire State Building standing so that viewers would recognize it instantly in the aftermath shot.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

ibuffer: If you do not use it, you are insane (Wednesday emacs blogging)

In short, use ibuffer, now; the relevant .emacs magic:

(global-set-key (kbd "C-x C-b") 'ibuffer)
(autoload 'ibuffer "ibuffer" "List buffers." t)

This is so much better than the regular buffer list it's not even funny. The first thing you'll notice is font-lock colorization (welcome to the 21st century!); but the killer feature is the wealth of buffer management keyboard shortcuts. On your first trip to ibuffer, you'll want to spend a little time reading through C-h b to learn the keyboard bindings; a small sample of just the marking functions:

% f     ibuffer-mark-by-file-name-regexp
% m     ibuffer-mark-by-mode-regexp
% n     ibuffer-mark-by-name-regexp

* *     ibuffer-unmark-all
* /     ibuffer-mark-dired-buffers
* M     ibuffer-mark-by-mode
* e     ibuffer-mark-dissociated-buffers
* h     ibuffer-mark-help-buffers
* m     ibuffer-mark-modified-buffers
* r     ibuffer-mark-read-only-buffers
* s     ibuffer-mark-special-buffers
* u     ibuffer-mark-unsaved-buffers
* z     ibuffer-mark-compressed-file-buffers

Once you start chaining these together, you'll wonder how you ever got along without them. For example, I commonly do * s * r t D y: mark all "special buffers" (*shell*, *scratch*, etc.); mark all read-only buffers; toggle marks (marking ordinary read-write buffers); delete marked buffers; confirm. This is handy since I often work on projects via multiple emacs instances, switching between an X11 emacs instance and a tty instance running under screen. When I switch, I want to close all the files I have open for editing (even if there are no unsaved changes), but leave *shell* and dired buffers alone.

Buffer management has historically been a real bottleneck in emacs productivity. Unlike most IDEs, emacs makes it trivial to have dozens or hundreds of buffers open simultaneously. This works great, except that working with all these buffers can become troublesome. For example, to switch to a buffer, you typically C-x b and type-complete the name; but when you have a half-dozen dired buffers all named client, it gets hard to remember whether the one you wanted was client<2> or client<5>. And, of course, the C-[left click] buffer list gets ridiculous with many buffers — you might as well be using Eclipse or something. ibuffer doesn't completely solve all these problems, but it certainly mitigates them.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The puzzle of American yogurt... this: Every national cuisine has a vernacular yogurt which is superior to American yogurt.

Think about it. Greek*, Indian, Swiss, Korean (n.b. many Koreans are lactose intolerant!), the list goes on: all better than American yogurt. And I'm not talking about handmade "artisanal" yogurt; this is all mass-produced stuff.

Now, of course, in our globalized world, one can obtain foreign yogurts for pretty reasonable prices, so it's not like I'm suffering here. What I want to know is: who keeps Dannon in business? Haven't they noticed that American yogurt has the unappetizing consistency of snot, and is also excessively sour, which the manufacturer typically tries to cover up (clumsily, unsuccessfully) with excessive sugary flavoring? Or do people just not know any better?

Or maybe it's just the advertising.

*My poison of choice: Fage 2% + fresh pineapple chunks. This may be the only vaguely healthy foodstuff which actually makes me feel satiated when I eat it after exercise.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

B. DeLong: Arnold Schwarzenegger was right about one thing

DeLong writes:

Changing sedentary, high-cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar fat people into more active, low-cholesteral, normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar fat people certainly does improve their health.

The governor of California is incompetent at budgeting, but these words of his are well worth listening to:

This exercise is extremely effective for your lats[issimi dorsi] and your upper back. Stand with your feet on either side of an open door and grasp the doorknobs with both hands. Slowly sink away from the door so that your back jackknifes and your arms extend fully and lock. Now pull yourself back up to the starting position. Let your arms, not your legs, complete the motion. I will count out thirty repetitions. Beginners should do 10, intermediates 20, and advanced the full amount. LET'S DO IT! 1... 2... 3... 4, AND STRETCH YOUR BACK!... 5... 6... 7, DON'T USE YOUR LEGS!... 8... 9... 10... 11... 12... 13... 14... 15... 16, JUST USE YOUR ARMS!... 17... 18... 19... 20... 1... 2... 3, CONCENTRATE ON YOUR BACK!!... 4... 5... 6... 7, THREE MORE!... 8... 9, AND NOT LAST ONE!... 30... WE'RE DOING FIVE MORE!!... 31, 32... HA! HA!... 33, 34, 35. Next we have in our program a wonderful leg exercise, the lunges. This exercise develops the front part of your thighs...

Hard to argue with.

p.s. Maybe this goes without saying, but M. McArdle is a completely intellectually irresponsible dingbat, and if DeLong doesn't convince you, T. Levenson and E. Klein are here to perform intellectual garbage pickup.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A business model for reporting

I would pay $50 a year for Seymour Hersh's reporting alone.* So, suppose I did that. Then suppose that there are twenty thousand people in America like me; this does not seem farfetched. That's a million-dollar budget just to fund one man's reporting. Aside from paying himself, he could easily fund travel, online distribution, and a handful of apprentices and assistants out of that budget. So I would not be funding Seymour Hersh, the individual; I would be funding the Seymour Hersh news team.

There are a handful of other reporters — off the top of my head, Elizabeth Kolbert, James Fallows, and Matt Taibbi come to mind — for whom I'd pay a similar amount. In fact, I can probably afford to spend a thousand dollars a year to patronize twenty journalists whom I actually respect. This is considerably less than I donated to miscellaneous humanitarian organizations last year. I say this not to brag about my personal charity, which is actually below median for my income, but to remark that once normal people get jobs in the professional class, they start donating this rough magnitude of money to charity.

So, suppose that there are one hundred reporters in America like Hersh. That is a one hundred million dollar domestic industry dedicated to pure reporting.

Notice that this industry would be mostly unconstrained by the need to seek eyeballs. I do not want to give Hersh money because I think his articles will get more page views than the latest article on trends in reality television (the center article on Sunday's NYTimes front page). I want to give him money because he discovers things that I want discovered.

This seems like a much more rational business model for news reporting in the public interest than the current one, where news is funded by supermarket coupons and advertisements for department stores and used cars.

Note that you can generalize the model. I picked 20,000 people donating $50 a year because that's roughly what I'd pay. Clearly, you can stretch the model in either the direction of higher prices or more people. At one extreme, there's the individual-patronage model: Bill Gates can just pay a million dollars a year to his pet journalist. At the other extreme you could fantasize about charging twenty million people a nickel a year. (This seems dubious to me. Due to transaction costs and coordination issues, I think it's much easier to wrangle larger sums of money out of smaller numbers of people. On the other hand, ideally you'd want a large enough cadre of donors so that no individual has too much pull with the reporter.) If you look at the whole spectrum, it's hard to believe that there's no working point on that spectrum. Maybe it's 4,000 people donating $250 a year. (That's about as much as a family membership to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, or a medium-sized pledge for the local NPR affiliate.) Maybe it's something else. The point is that there are three hundred million people in this country and for a nationally recognized journalist it's not hard to imagine that there's enough patronage out there to fund his or her work.

Now, no doubt there are many practical challenges one would have to overcome in order to reorganize the news industry as a whole along these lines. And the details definitely wouldn't work out exactly as I've painted it**. But revolution's never a sure thing. I, for one, would love to see someone try it.

*On the other hand, I would not pay any amount of money to support Thomas Friedman*** or David Brooks. It is a curious artifact of the current newspaper industry that I cannot give money to writers whom I respect without also subsidizing hacks. The distribution of my news dollar to people who write stuff is determined by the whims of people like Bill Keller and Marcus Brauchli. These guys do not, as far as I can tell, try to produce a product which describes reality; they aim to achieve "balance" as defined by the political sensibilities of their social networks. In fact, it is not clear to me that they even understand the difference between these two things.

**Random guesses: (1) journalists like to be around other journalists, so individual teams would rent offices or share coworking space together; (2) the economics of risk would lead to agreements to share revenue and other resources among teams. The end result might be something like a current newsroom but with more distributed authority and a different revenue stream.

***Actually, I would pay negative money for Thomas Friedman. That is, you would have to pay me to read Friedman regularly, and I would probably pay you money if you could credibly offer to stop Friedman from writing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

An objectively incorrect Buddhist belief

Pratītyasamutpāda states that

A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being.

For "world" substitute "universe". But, of course, we know that this is false. One's condition can be affected by, and can conversely affect, only objects within one's light cone, not everything else in the universe at that moment. More generally, two objects only affect each other insofar as their light cones intersect.

Given everything else that's arbitrary about Buddhism, and religion more generally, it may seem sort of random to quibble with the details of this corner of Buddhist metaphysics. But this is just one minor example of how religion gets all kinds of stuff wrong — not even in the things that most people will notice, or that have much practical impact on the practice of the religion — just stuff that's casually wrong, wrong in the way that people will be wrong when they make stuff up without modern knowledge and modern standards of evidence. Religion is fractally wrong, and so when you turn over any random rock you'll probably find something wrong under it.

Buddhism is often portrayed as the most rational of religions. This is probably true, but that's a bit like saying that the pika is the least rabbity lagomorph.* It may not be very rabbity, but there are plenty of things even less like a rabbit.

Squeezing truths from religion is like studying the ruins of collapsed ancient cities to learn how to build skyscrapers. In the ruins you'll find a lot of interesting history and occasionally some genuine beauty, but when you want to get stuff built, you'd do much better to just study modern architecture.

*OK, this is a terrible analogy, but I wanted to link to a pika because pikas are cute.

What do polyamory and hexadecimal have in common?

The title of this MeFi post reminded me of two related linguistic curiosities: both polyamory and hexadecimal are hybrid mashups of Greek and Latin roots.

"Poly" is Greek for "many"; but Greek for romantic love is "eros". "Amor" is a Latin root. A more fiddly linguist would have coined the term polyerotics (Greek) or multiamory (Latin).

Likewise, "hex" is Greek for "six"; but the Greek root for ten is "deka". "Decimal" is Latin. In this case, more consistent coinages would have been either hexadecadic/deca-hexadic (Greek) or sexadecimal (Latin).

Interestingly, in both cases, at least one of consistent formations (polyerotics*, sexadecimal) is more sexually suggestive to the modern English speaker than the hybrid coinage. Coincidence?

*Actually, "polyerotic" seems to have been adopted by online polyamorist communities as a designation for specifically sexual polyamorous relationships. This is OK, I suppose, although I think the Greeks had it right that romantic love and sexual desire (which they denoted with the same word) cannot be cleanly cleaved in two.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The other pie in My Blueberry Nights (a correction)

So, I've been slowly working my way through all Wong Kar-Wai movies, and tonight I watched My Blueberry Nights.

It's not a great movie. In many ways it's not even a good movie (although considered purely as a visual artifact, nobody who appreciates film could fail to be seduced). In many ways, it would work better as a long-form music video, and at times that is what it becomes. If you want to read a more considered opinion of the movie, then Dana Stevens's Slate review is reasonably astute. But I'm not posting this to review the movie per se. No, I have more serious business.

I have run across a couple of articles online suggesting that Jeremy (played by Jude Law) is eating a lemon meringue pie while Elizabeth (Norah Jones) is eating her titular blueberry pie. And since nobody appears to have corrected this*, I suppose it falls to me.

Does that look like lemon meringue to you? It is topped with an elegantly browned meringue no doubt, but the base cannot possibly be lemon jelly. No, this is a fruity filling of a more chunky consistency. Although it is definitely a yellow fruit.

Given that this is a Wong Kar-Wai film, the pie in question is clearly a pineapple meringue — Wong's sly, anorakish way of tying Jeremy explicitly to the protagonists of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (both of which are far superior films, and among my favorite films ever).

Thus endeth the lesson.

Oh, all right, one more thing. If you ever get the chance, watch the scene with Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) from this movie in a format where you can really see her face.

There's something about her slightly off-kilter line readings — "maybe you're just sen-ti-mental" — that suggests a whole history. You can hear the barbs of old emotions, catching at the rhythms of this character's speech even though she won't say them in words. Of course, who knows, maybe that's just how Chan Marshall talks. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the awkward performance of an inexperienced actress. But regardless, the readings transcend the clunkily metaphorical lurch of the screenplay's lines here, and I'll remember this scene long after I've forgotten everything else about this movie but the pie.

*Note that Stevens herself is careful merely to aver that it is a "meringue" of unspecified provenance. Bravo.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sarah Palin's career: A concise explanation

As with so many other things, the answer can be found in Bill and Ted.

She was a deeply thoughtless and incoherent woman, but she was briefly the anointed representative of a tribe; and amidst her incoherency, she occasionally uttered the ritual phrases of her tribe; and for these things they blessed her.

(This is the last thing, I hope, I will ever write about this person. But see Dahlia Lithwick's astute Slate piece if you really crave more.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Matt Taibbi on "everyone else was doing it"

Taibbi's article on Goldman Sachs has been getting a lot of attention. Today, he struck back at some of his critics in a most excellent fashion:

. . . even if it is true that “everyone else was doing it”: so what? Who cares? To me this response is highly telling. We published a piece accusing Goldman Sachs of systematically ripping off pensioners and other retail investors by sticking them with rafts of toxic mortgages it knew were losers, of looting taxpayer reserves to cover its bad bets made with AIG, of manipulating gas prices to massive detrimental effect, of helping to explode an internet bubble that caused over $5 trillion in wealth to disappear, and numerous other crimes — and the response isn’t “You’re wrong,” or “We didn’t do that shit, not us,” but “Well, Morgan did the same stuff,” and “Why aren’t you writing about Morgan?”

Why didn’t we write about Morgan? Because we didn’t. Because it’s your turn, you assholes. Maybe later someone will tell the story of the other banks, but for now, while most ordinary people are only just learning about the workings of the financial innovation era that blew up in their faces last year, the top dog in that universe is going to be first in line to get the special treatment. That might be inconvenient for Goldman, but it doesn’t make the things I or anyone else say about them untrue.

I find Taibbi's analysis uneven sometimes, but his writing and reportage are consistently excellent, and you should be reading his blog if you aren't already.

Japantown, SF, 08:36 a.m.

Friday, July 03, 2009

On "listserv"

Hypothesis: usage of the word "listserv" to mean "mailing list" generically is a shibboleth for non-technical Internet users of a certain age.

LISTSERV was the first mailing list management software, so you'd think that everybody who used the Internet before 1997 or so would call mailing lists "listservs". However, I don't think I've ever heard a programmer use the term "listserv" in the generic sense — at least not since the 90's, when LISTSERV itself was still in widespread use. Even back then, I think programmers and sysadmins mostly restricted its usage to mailing lists managed by LISTSERV specifically (as opposed to majordomo, lyris, mailman, or a plain sendmail alias).

(Speculation as to the reason for this distinction: non-technical users have a greater tendency to conflate general classes of software or protocols with specific instances of them. Example: the belief that a blue "e" is the icon for the Internet.)

Conversely, of course, kids who started using the Internet after web-based social software supplanted email and Usenet obviously don't even know what a "listserv" is. Unless/until they start working with some old fogies who use the term, I suppose.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pretty close to how I feel about human social interaction these days

The symbols differ but the sentiment is similar.

The strange thing is that I really like all my friends and co-workers but I still have this strange and inescapable distaste for "people" as a category.

Oblique reaction to an ending

From Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo, pp. 181-182:

"The group broke up. We no longer exist as a group. Of course there wasn't any real hope once you left. Still and all it's frightening. Nobody was really prepared for it. But it happened. We no longer exist in the old sense."

"As of when?"

"I heard it on the radio coming in from the airport. When I left L.A., things were still in flux. Nothing was decided to the point where we could come out and say we've reached a decision. But I guess we broke up because I heard it on the radio.  It sounded pretty official.  Who has final word on these matters?"

"The radio," I said.

"A lot of it was my doing," he said.  "I got heavily involved in black music.  Not performing or producing.  Just listening.  That old showcase stuff with everybody in shiny clothes and pomaded hair. Brushed drums, piano, sax breaks.  'Baby don't you know that I love you so.'  I'm into that sound, Bucky, and I can't get out.  After all these years I realize that's the only sound I really love.  So I neglected the band and now we no longer exist as a group.  The little dance routines they do.  Hands flashing out, feet gliding, bodies whirling so smoothly.  Romantic soul music done by immortal groups. The Infatuations.  The Tailfins.  The Splendifics.  'It's a hurtin' pain you give me, babe, but I'm fightin' for my love.'  It's all love and sorrow, Bucky, and it just about destroys me emotionally.  The crude dumb emotion, it's so incredibly beautiful.  Sorrowful ballads with occasional falsetto passages.  And even when I'm just listening to records I can see them moving on stage, doing the little whirls and gliding steps, flashing out their hands.  Shiny bright hair.  Custom tuxedos.  Fantastic teeth and fingernails.  And the cheap emotion behind the lyrics just wrecks me.  The Motelles.  The Vanities.  The Willows.  The Renditions.  The Flairs.  Nate Pearce and the Hydromatics.  'Baby can't you see how you're upsettin' me, shoo-eee, shoo-eee.'  Everything is there, Bucky.  There's nothing else I want or need."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Busting prostitution: An efficient use of police resources

So, today I ran across this from A. Lapite (original source at Gotham Gazette):

Robert Pinter, a 52-year-old gay man who was arrested for prostitution at the Blue Door in the East Village on Oct. 10, spoke at the town hall meeting. He said a young man — a 29-year old undercover cop who, Pinter said, looked even younger — cruised him in the store. He was "charming and persistent, and we agreed to go home for consensual sex, but as we were leaving he said, 'I want to pay you $50 [to have sex].' I didn't respond, but I thought it was strange," Pinter recounted. As the men left the store, Pinter said, a group of men who did not show police identification pushed him against the wall.

"I thought I'd been set up by a gang," he said. "I asked them why they were doing this to me. I was totally clueless. They handcuffed me and said, 'Why the f--- do you think we're arresting you — loitering for the purpose of prostitution.'"

and this, also via Lapite (read the whole thing, it's short):

It was Rocio Palacios who first noticed the woman who appeared to need help.

It was 8 a.m. when she and her husband, Erasmo, dropped their 6-year-old daughter off at school and had picked up their 22-year-old daughter to go out for breakfast when they saw the woman waving her arms at 53rd Street and Kedzie Avenue last November.

The Palacioses, of Chicago, claim the woman approached their car, parked outside Manolo's restaurant, leaned in to the passenger side where Rocio was sitting and asked Erasmo if he wanted oral sex for $20 or sex for $25.

The couple laughed, realizing this wasn't a woman in distress after all.

But within seconds, Chicago police swarmed the family car, hauling Erasmo Palacios out in handcuffs. He was charged with solicitation of a prostitute.

So, in case you haven't guessed by now, the title of this post is sarcastic.

Now, these two incidents don't prove anything by themselves. But both stories suggest that the police departments in question had adopted questionable policing strategies; and note that the NYPD and CPD are the two largest municipal police forces in nation, and doubtless among the best-funded in the world, with budgets of roughly $3.9 billion and $1.2 billion respectively. If the vice units of these highly professionalized forces are doing stuff like this, what happens elsewhere?

Decriminalizing prostitution may be politically unrealistic, but it seems to me that we ought, at a minimum, to be focusing enforcement effort on its genuinely pernicious aspects: coercive trafficking, prostitution-related violence, and underage prostitution. But, of course, busting a trafficking ring requires hard investigative work, whereas paying an individual undercover cop to "solicit" a consenting adult requires minimal skill and energy.

(Which — sigh — is exactly why we should legalize prostitution itself, and criminalize that which is genuinely harmful. Police have a finite budget of time and will allocate that time efficiently by arresting those lawbreakers who can be most easily apprehended. I'd argue banning prostitution per se makes life easier for trafficking rings by giving vice cops something to do besides busting trafficking rings. But whatever, I'm shouting into the wind here. The gates to prostitution decriminalization are guarded by the three-headed dog of social conservatives plus radical feminists plus the large majority of people who simply find prostitution "icky" and I'm pretty convinced that nothing's ever going to fix this problem in the U.S.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

On honesty and interpersonal relations

So, a friend of mine has embarked on a project that involves a lot of dating, and on her most recent outing the man told her this:

I said, "So, Colombia, are you full of shit or what?" After a long pause, he looked me straight in the eye and said (seriously), "I've lied to women, but I've never lied to a lady."

Does this sort of line actually work? Because my immediate thought on reading this was, "Wow, hope he never decides you're the wrong kind."

Honest people are not honest because they think you deserve it; they're honest because it hurts not to be.

But, of course, we don't usually want to be around those people. Lying is an essential social skill. People who are very bad at deceiving others tend to cause awkwardness and don't get invited to many parties.* The unvarnished truth of human existence is that we are agents competing for scarce resources and our interests never align perfectly with those of other people. Lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters — to say nothing of friends or acquaintances or strangers you meet socially — all are engaged in a tug-of-war over who does the chores, who gets Dad's approval, who gets the girl, who's the center of attention at the party. Social life is a war for priority in the eyes of other people. Lies are the lubricant which allows us to pretend otherwise.

To genuinely forego participation in this game takes unusual will, perversity, obliviousness, narcissism, or some combination of these.

(As for me, I basically play the game, however ineptly, and I think this is what is turning me into a misanthrope.)

*Note that the converse is clearly not true: people who are socially awkward are not necessarily more honest. I think my friend's skepticism at her date's smoothness betrays a false belief that if he were more awkward, then he would be more trustworthy. Actually, I knew her ex; he was pretty awkward and he wasn't trustworthy at all. Most often, people are socially awkward simply because they lack the skill to be otherwise. P. Graham has interesting things to say about this, although I would add that Graham is being both too self-congratulatory and too optimistic: being socially deft does not require the sacrifice of one's intelligence; and as far as I can tell, success in the adult world seems to be most positively correlated with being integrated into the social networks of power, not with objective achievement in some discipline.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Iranian elections (random thoughts prompted by)

I don't have much of value to add to what other, better-informed people are saying about the Iranian election, but I strongly recommend keeping your eye on this continuously-updated HuffPost roundup.

I also want to record some random thoughts that occurred to me as I was sitting at the coffeeshop waiting for my laundry —


While watching the protest footage, I was suddenly reminded of a moment, long ago, while I was traveling in Greece with a bunch of college classmates. Our Greek tour guide was saying something along the lines of "Ancient Greece had the first democratic government. Of course, you may wonder how the birthplace of democracy could keep slaves, but..." etc. There was no hint of irony in her utterance of this sentence. One guy in our group leaned over to me and said, in a low voice, "Does she realize she's talking to Americans? Slavery at the birthplace of democracy? Isn't that how it's done?" I surmised later that the tour guide's patter was probably designed with pan-European audiences in mind.

I don't know what exactly about the Iranian elections made me think of this, except possibly that both remind me of how thoroughly imperfect real-world democracies are, and how many different pieces have to fit together just exactly right to make this form of social organization function to modern standards.


I usually find Huffington Post annoying, but their post seems to be a better guide to what's going on than anything else I can find right now. This sort of real-time but human-curated index synthesizing links to news"paper" stories, blog posts, Twitter posts, and embeddable user-uploaded videos really does seem quite powerful.

It is also a type of media object which traditional outlets are currently ill-equipped to create (and possibly even ideologically opposed to creating). Compare the HuffPost article with the NYTimes equivalent: the latter has less variety, slower updates, and more focus on "official" sources. And this makes the NYTimes version worse, not better.


If Obama determined American foreign policy by listening to everything Joe Lieberman says and making sure to never, ever do that, then he would have a pretty good foreign policy.