Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I need a new catch phrase for my blog. What do you think?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Prediction markets have been having a little bit of time in the sun recently because of the US elections. Generally they're illegal, but people are allowed to place small bets on various aspects of the election (in America). Pundits don't much like them and have written quite a few articles explaining that they're no good and delighting in cases where the market gets things "wrong". BUT

  • The limitation on bet size is bound to make the market less accurate.
  • When a market say that there's an 80% chance of event A and then event B actually happens, this does not mean the betting market was wrong.
  • The claim is that these markets will be more accurate than us, not that they are unfailingly perfect.

If prediction markets are very imperfect indicators of truth, and they are much better than even the best experts, the conclusion should be that you are not very good at developing true beliefs about the future.

A lame analogy

So, you want to eat a healthy diet, how do you do it? One option is to examine the nutritional information on everything find and make sure you only consume stuff with ingredients nutritionists agree is healthy. This approach gives the impression of being sciencey and rational, but you'd have a nagging feeling that there was something important missing. A diet comprised of only healthy things might be a terrible diet.

Learning to cook a bunch of traditional recipes from your culture from your grandmother is quite likely to end up being a better guide to a healthy diet that the approach above, but we wouldn't necessarily have any idea of what crucial stuff we were happily consuming.

The point is, it's easy to construct a worldview entirely out of true facts only for it to be fatally anaemic and many cultural norms and traditions contain wisdom that we only dimly comprehend.

Monday, February 25, 2008

please note

this blog's adorable new title.

Some news is not actually news

Your Bayesian lesson for the day. The headline, “Ex-MI6 boss denies killing Diana” should have exactly no effect on your beliefs, this is because the odds of ex-MI6 bosses admitting to killing Diana are zero, regardless of their actual killing activities.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bloody nightmare

I never did lose faith that Arsenal would screw it all up. Looks like they're gonna do it with some style.

Really? Genius!

I'm watching Sky News and they're discussing prostitution. One of the participants just said, "In New Zealand the repealed all the laws outlawing selling sex but did not repeal laws outlawing sexual assault."

Brilliant! That's what those of us who would decriminalise prostitution have been getting wrong all these years; we figured that we'd have to legalise rape too as part of the deal.

That aside, she was the only one who made sense, the rest of the discussion was depressing. One of the men defended the status quo by arguing that normal people are attached to the idea that sex is about love and legalising prostitution undermines that. He did not suggest that government should take steps to stop sex in loveless marriages. I wonder if he knows what all those crazy kids get up to after one of those spirited bouts of binge drinking.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Apparently my last post on our opinions was a little negative. After doing some reading it can be difficult not to be pessimistic about our chances of holding reasonable views. Tyler Cowen sums it up

You are wrong so, so, so often. That is, or rather should be, the central lesson of epistemology. It is a lesson which hardly anybody ever learns. And you don't need the fancy philosophical machinery to get there. That is why the rest of epistemology is so often so fruitless.

But it's a mistake to be overly fatalistic about how we develop our views, some people do better than others, so we should just try to do better.

  • Try not to see issues in terms of black and white, but get used to thinking in terms of varying degrees of probability. 1 and 0 are not real life probabilities.
  • Forget about some Platonic ideal of "the truth". I'm no relativist, but even if we happen to hold perfectly true beliefs we don't know which ones they are. Instead we can start from our current set of views and be flexible. We need some rules which offer guidance for moving our views in a better direction. Rules should be some combination of reported evidence, relevant authority and wherever possible some sort of expert consensus (these rules deserve more consideration, but not now).
  • Try to recognise the difference between ingrained intuitive beliefs and reasoned out view and try to make explicit (to ourselves) how we balance these when they conflict. We can't escape from the fact much of our knowledge is local and not easily articulated, and we should celebrate this knowledge. But if we find good reasons to believe they are false we must be willing to tackle our attachment to them.
  • Confirmation bias is both powerful and insidious. There is no excuse for not taking it seriously.
  • Truth is not the only value. Many of our beliefs simply make our lives easier; we should just deal with this.
  • We should accept that there are beliefs that we should hold that we have no hope of ever understanding. Markets aggregate information in ways we can never understand and they help illuminate reality. There are many other examples of this. Which institutions are these? How do we know which ones to trust?

Anyway, I'm not happy with this. But I'm also sick of staring at it. So here it is.

What’s worse?

Doing nothing to educate your citizens and then leaving them to go about their business, or educating them and then actively stopping them from putting it to effective use? High literacy is a pro, but it should throw an even starker spotlight on Cuba's cons.

I don't get how Castro supporters can laud Cuban education and in the same breath lament the fact Cuban nuclear physicists can barely feed themselves without wondering exactly why this state should persist. Of course the reason why they're eating one meal a day is because Russia stopped giving Cuba $800 dollars per person per year, it has nothing to do with Castro.

Some countries have figured out how to feed themselves without massive freebies.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hooray for Fidel!

And, of course, Castro ran a dictatorship that has, since 1959, committed its fair share of crimes, repressions, denials of democratic rights etc.

I just love the "of course" and the "etc" at the end which suggests that the list does go on a bit, but that it's tiresome to dwell on such trifling details. We should rather focus on the important things

So let's hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care. Let's hear it for the Cubans who help defeat the South Africans and their allies in Angola and thereby prepared the end of apartheid. Let's hear it for the middle-aged Cuban construction workers who held off the US forces for a while on Grenada. Let's hear it for Elian Gonzalez. Let's hear it for 49 years of defiance in the face of the US blockade. Hasta la victoria siempre!

Yay! If the message is that in whole US/Cuba saga the US were hardly saints then fine, they weren't. But that doesn't mean we must cheer the other side. If two sides are in conflict, both may not be able to be right, but both can definitely be wrong and we're not compelled to choose sides. I actually think this is a lesson that lots of us could stand to learn. We settle really easily into an "us versus them" mentality in debates as with to many other things.

Every country has good points to go along with bad, but that doesn't mean we can simply list some of each then pick the side that we happen to like anyway. We need to maintain some bloody perspective! Communist Russia produced great chess players! Yay! Nazi Germany had cool roads! Yay!

Literacy is really great, but it usually correlates with other nice things, like having a job and being able to read stuff other than the collected works of Karl Marx and Che Guevara (this is unfair, but you get the point). It's also worth noting that Cuba isn't the only country in the world to have high literacy levels and "decent" (I also enjoyed that) health care.

Tragedy is when...

... the doors of an SAB truck fly open on the highway resulting in the destruction of dozens of crates of beer. Comedy is a flying wrench to the face.

To update Mel Brooks a little.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Federer won the Laureus award for the world's top sportsman for the fourth straight year. I do think this pretty cool and the award does seem to have more currency than any other award that I know of.

That said, I think Woods probably should have won this year. The bias against individuals from team sports is bad enough for me to add a mental asterisk to some of the winners (though Woods and Federer have surely been worthy winners). And Trevor will probably never speak to me again, but I don't think the Boks were the best team of last year either. I disagree with half of the choices made for this award, so it's not just anti-patriotism that makes me say this.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Don’t like something? Ban it!

Importing and using power-guzzling appliances could be banned under a law designed to enforce the government's energy conservation pro-gramme, the minerals and energy department said on Friday.

As well as powers to ban appliances, the proposed Energy Security Bill will empower the minerals and energy minister to penalise offenders and issue standards and regulations for appliances and equipment used to generate or consume energy.

Great. Presumably they'll be starting raids on our houses to make sure we're complying with the standards. Where do they come up with these ideas?! As long as electricity remains artificially cheap we'll use whatever appliances we have left in an inefficient manner (when there is power of course).

In other idiot related news, school kids will have to recite this pledge everyday before school

We the youth of South Africa, recognising the injustices of our past, honour those who suffered and sacrificed for justice and freedom.

"We will respect and protect the dignity of each person, and stand up for justice.

"We sincerely declare that we shall uphold the rights and values of our Constitution and promise to act in accordance with the duties and responsibilities that flow from these rights.

Some people cheer the sentiments expressed while others (a possibly racist minority) worry that it's indoctrinating white kids into having a permanent guilt complex. Predictably the focus has been on the content of the pledge rather than wondering about government forcing kids to make the same oath everyday. They should not be doing this. It's really easy to get distracted by the fact that the words sound all fine.

Of course kids wont be compelled to recite the pledge,

However, if those objecting were in the minority, then "the majority will have to prevail".

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Quote of the day

Maybe things were safer back then.

This is Mandy's response to my recollection that I used to walk from Claremont to Smuts late at night. Oh for those innocent carefree days of 2001!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

I think

I saw Josh Holloway, the guy who plays Sawyer on Lost. I like the character so I was pretty excited.

What are the odds that I just saw someone who looked like him?

Kitchen-Floor Conflict Intensifies As Rival House Cats Claim Same Empty Bag

The heavy leaping and grappling was broken only by periods of intense mutual licking. At one point, the conflict escalated into full-fledged upside-down kicking of each other in the face before Boswell was distracted by an errant ball rolling across the floor, bringing the factions to an uneasy standstill.

Do We Really Want Another Black President After The Events Of Deep Impact?

The Onion makes the case against Obama

Have we learned nothing from the tragic events of 1998, when, under the watch of President Morgan Freeman, this nation was plunged into chaos, and hundreds of millions of people died at the hands of the deadly Wolf-Beiderman space rock? The mere fact that this country is even considering putting another black man, Barack Obama, in the Oval Office proves that we have not.

... As if that is not enough, history shows us that, besides carrying the baggage of a guaranteed asteroid strike, black heads of state also give terrorists extra motivation to destroy the United States. During the presidency of 24's David Palmer, there were no fewer than four nuclear bombs smuggled into this country. That's four more than under any white president.

... I concede that the United States has had a competent African-American president in the huge black guy from the The Fifth Element, who did great things for this country by keeping the evil Mr. Zorg at bay. But that is years from now. There is no denying that by 2236, when we have flying taxicabs, this country will be ready for a black president. But until then, if we want life in this great land to continue as we know it, we owe it to ourselves to make the right choice and reelect Kevin Kline.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What did I miss?

I'm a little stunned by Barack Obama's under explained surge, what the hell has actually happened that he's 30% more likely to become president in the past 3 days? I prefer Obama to Clinton, but I was a little sad to see the trend because it means that McCain's odds are falling as Obama's rise, but it does mean that America will have a cool president who's nice to immigrants in a year's time and that's a good thing.

I find it difficult not to translate 47% chance of Obama win into, "only a freak yachting accident can stop him now!" but he also has a 53% chance of not becoming president.


if a page isn't loading you just need to keep hitting the refresh button until your browser crashes. Not every time. Just sometimes.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I heart Will Wilkinson

With impeccable timing to go with some actual cleverness, Will Wilkinson has two great posts about the moral claims of foreigners. I know you people don't follow links so this is what you get

First, back up to the question of the justification of a system of private property. The division of the commons into parcels, and the use of government coercion to enforce private claims over these parcels — which include the right to exclude — requires a justification. Dave Schmidtz provides that justification here [doc]. In short, dividing the commons leaves each with more than had it remained open. The right to exclude enables general prosperity.

So, think of the Earth as a big commons, and imagine borders as fences. Can we justify the system of nation-states and its migration controls in the same way? Evidently not. The welfare gains that would come from even a mild decrease in coercive limits on travel and free association are awesomely huge, which of course implies that the status quo system of limits does not leave most people better off than they would be in a feasible alternative system. And this suggests that the global-level system of division and exclusion lacks moral justification.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

So shoot me

If you check out my Facebook ratings for both books and movies you'll see a lot of five star ratings for books and not so many for movies. It's almost as though I think books are better or something.

Tyler Cowen and his bloody movie reviews

Most of all this is a movie about how the young'uns have no tools for moral discourse and that all they can do is utter banalities and take endless pictures of each other and record their lives for no apparent purpose. I can't recall any other movie that so completely devastates its intended demographic.

Actually, I agree that this is what the movie is going for, but it doesn't mean they do it well. If someone stops you on the street and offers a detailed critique of your appearance and other personal defects you have not thereby been devastated, you've just been ranted at by a crazy person. I don't know any thirty year old Tokyo based multinational corporation vice presidents, but I'm sure they're not morons; arrogant, self involved, whatever, but not morons.

(The movie is Cloverfield by the way.)

The Wire

Really is very good, and I'll admit part of what I like is its realism. I can buy that some parts of some American cities are that crap (it seems more likely during the 80's and early 90's though).

But, that doesn't mean that we know exactly what we should learn from it, and it's clear that we're supposed to learn a lot. I've only seen the first season, but I have read this pretentious, but interesting wikipedia entry and show's creator tells us that it's

a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class.…[I]t is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy; that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.

Deep shit man. Though I wonder about trying to show so much by focusing on the most extreme part of a poor, dying city. But let's say we're ok with that, what does the show tell us?

  • that the criminal justice system is dysfunctional
  • the war on drugs is unjust and ruthless
  • the Iraq war sucks (jesus)
  • not only are politicians corrupt, but that politics is inherently corrupting
  • the school system is broken (and kids are educated outside of school too).

So we devastate capitalism by moaning about the institutions that have nothing to do with capitalism.

The show is pretty effective in showing the power of capitalism. The search for profit drives the creation of institutions that transform semi-literate thugs into extremely competent workers and the messed up incentives of the justice system transforms highly educated professionals into cynics trying to game the system to their own advantage.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

How bout that realism?

Part of the trouble with "realistic" films is that, really, you have to editorialise. Living in London for a year I took a look at some shitty flats, there were tons of grey depressing days and there were plenty of dirty overcrowded high streets, bus stops and tube stations. My job was boring, I didn't earn a lot of money (and I spent even less) and I didn't socialise much. I could edit together a two hour long film from my memory with me as the quiet (deep, attractive, talented) protagonist that could make a "deep" meditation of the indignities of modern, materialist London that was all true. But it would be extremely dishonest for me to do it; I loved London.

A possible response is to say that I don't really know what it's like to grow up in a flat on Wood Green High Street and I come from an upper-middle class background so my perspective doesn't capture anything, context is everything! And that's true, but if we go this route, how exactly are we supposed to judge a gritty urban drama's realism other than an intuitive sense of something ringing true and maybe a few bonus points for general depression? We don't have the tools to interpret mannerisms, unspoken rules etc of the community being portrayed, so either it's really true to life and we don't understand a fucking thing, or the artists has to "train us" to see it in the way we're meant to, which I can't help but feel involves a lot of deviations from the way things actually are out there.

The movie Half Nelson went for gritty realism, but I'm deeply sceptical of its value. A better try comes from The Wire, it leaves out the deep inscrutable looks of characters as they ponder their existential angst in favour of dumping the viewer into the middle of its world and leaving us to find our way around, and they can get away with it because they have hours and hours to do it.

John McCain

My top bloggers all hate John McCain, but they're usually a little vague about why. So I trawled around a bit looking and I've gotta say, I'm underwhelmed. As well as I could make out he is guilty of the following sins.

  • Enthusiastic tobacco regulator and taxer.
  • Doesn't want people to get big contributions to campaigns (I'm agnostic about this).
  • Has a kind of old fashioned view of virtue and what counts as a meaningful life.
  • Drug warrior.
  • He's hawkish.
  • Makes supply-side noises.
  • Evidence stacked up since World War II suggests that, contrary to popular opinion, he may have told a lie.
  • He has no grand vision for America in the 21st century (good!).
  • ???

Give me a break. Fine I don't like most of these things either, but a) I don't find them outrageous, indefensible or even important and b) I would find it astonishing (and weird) if I liked everything about a candidate and c) The fact that this is the worst people can muster does actually say a lot. People who like markets so much should know that you can't usually rest your case by simply noting the cons while ignoring the pros, and McCain has a lot going for him.

I do like him less now, which is good I think, and I'm a little anxious about his choice of running mate, especially since there's a reasonable chance he'll die in the next few years.

Patriots' Season Perfect For Rest Of Nation

The Onion has the scoop.

Caring Is Creepy

Been listening to The Shins. This has got to be one of the coolest song titles out there.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

You know that deal we have with the pigeons?

Last year I saw a pigeon misjudge its saunter out the way out of slow moving car. It was a near thing, but he got caught the very edge of the tyre.

Today though the bloody thing was looking right at the car and seemed to think about its options. Standing still would have done fine, but he jumped right into the bumper and wham! Feathers everywhere. I don't want to have to worry about them. Idiots.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

and why, pray tell, do you care?

It's a pity the Giants won. For someone who has no emotional investement in either team I can't help feel disappointed that the result depended on one team (the better team)underperforming. I also don't want people to be encouraged to think thoughts like, "the rest of the season counts for nothing! When it came to the crunch we showed them who's really best.". The final play was impressive and looked pretty damn cool, but, at the end of the day, it was pretty lucky too.

I think I could get into American football. Who knows, maybe I could one day get into rugby!

rights and children: a tenuous analogy

Children are awkward for libertarians. We mostly think we have a right to be left alone, not to assistance from others. But infants clearly have a right to more than this, implying a positive duty on someone else, "the parents!" a libertarian might cry. But it doesn't take much imagination to see that this isn't enough to protect the rights of children, some are still going to be abandoned and abused and they shouldn't need to rely on charity to get some help. So the government should guarantee these rights.

Of course, even if we take a minimalist, negative view of rights, we all have them, we talk about human rights all the time; not citizens rights, or South African rights. People in certain countries have these rights violated all the time. The cry is usually that it is their governments duty to enforce these rights. Maybe we should put pressure on delinquent governments but we have no duty ourselves. I think this is wrong, if we talk about human rights then we should face up to our (negative) duty.

I'm sceptical of arguments by analogy like this one, but I think it's something worth thinking about.

Governments create new rights for their citizens all the time. I don't see any problem with these rights only applying only to their citizens, but we should remember what the most basic fundamental rights are and what they should imply.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

US president

I'm not sure why I'm entertained by the race, but I am. John McCain is in a virtual dead heat with Hilary Clinton as frontrunner for the race.

The punditry is predictably annoying, but that's part of the fun, as is analysing your own feelings. For example, my dislike of Mitt Romney is not really that rational; he just irritates me, though of course I can cite reasons. But you can find reasons to moan about any candidate.

I can't help being surprised by pundits who are so impressed to root out tiny inconsistencies in things their enemy candidate said, yet they often seem to really believe that their chosen person is pure as driven snow. Anything a little slimy they did was done so for pure reasons, for the good of the country. For example, a few years ago McCain said he wished he understood economics better, but when asked about it the other week or so ago he said that he knows a lot about economics. He's a liar! See??!! Straight Talk Express my arse! Several very respectable democrat bloggers got really excited about this and I just can't get my head around it. Of course people write what readers want to see, but come on people.

This is one reason libertarianism appeals; pundits are not concerned to explain away stupid things said or done by any of the candidates. On the other hand, they tend to be a little dogmatic and create the impression that each candidate is equally bad, which is crazy since even most conservatives agree that G. W. Bush has been an unusually bad president.

30 seconds inside Stu's head

Scene: Stu wanders aimlessly through Exclusive Books. His eyes widen slightly as he notices the bins signifying the annual sale and he somewhat reluctantly wanders over.

Stu: What are the odds of finding anything good (asked rhetorically)? Is it just me or is this sale getting a little more cynical every year...? Mnff (inarticulate expression of frustration glossing over books). Hey cool, Bowling Alone. It's paper back... dirty and worn out! R20...? R100!? ha ha ha ha ha!! (possibly attracting a few looks for inexplicable laughter)

aaaaaaaaaannnnd... scene.

I'm sure some people saw this coming...

My willingness to hand out death sentences for amusingly trivial crimes has placed me on a slippery slope where more and more people are worthy of upbrupt, violent deaths.

I fear that few people will escape my fake wrath...

Saturday, February 02, 2008


This is a little brutal.

more Woods vs Federer

I'm happy to defer to my betters on the subject, but this kind of comment does irritate me
No matter what they say, both players have one eye on what the other is doing. It appears that’s what is motivating them, since no one within their sport have the balls to step it up and work harder.

Up until last week, that is. Federer’s loss at a Grand Slam is a major hit for him in that race. Woods’s destruction is only making it worse. Or is it?
Federer had demolished the record for consecutive grand slam finals. That streak is over, but as a consolation prize he continues his demolition of the record for consecutive semi-finals, which is also a cool record.

The requirement that he not only breaks these records but that he should double them (just to keep up!)is a bar to high and should not be considered.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Federer blogging

I hope you'll agree that I've been very restrained recently, but enough is enough; Woods vs Federer! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Here's maybe the best post I've read on the topic. Sailer (who remains evil) doesn't say so in as many words but Woods seems to have the edge. It's a fun topic and much crappy ink has been spilled on it. The better articles generally settle on Woods and who am I to argue? I do have some points to make though.

  • The fact the there are four majors a year in both sports is not a deep point, neither is the observation that tennis players win them fasters but golfers win them longer. These tendencies do not cancel out.
  • Metrics comparing how far each player is from the regular no. 1 are suggestive but ultimately not very helpful. Woods is way ahead of the curve, but Federer has been much closer to the limit of what is actually possible.
  • Woods only really has one year that is clearly the match of Federer's best years (though he has more great years in the bank and more in the future).
  • Golf is weird and I don't understand the economics of it or nuthin'.
  • If we wanna talk greatest sportsman, like, ever, then Woods somehow makes sense, but Federer doesn't as much. I don't know why exactly.
  • Lots of silly things can be said with some plausibility of the issue. For example, Woods' rivals were mentally crushed by his superiority, but Federer's rivals just suck.
  • I have some, indefinable feeling that the standard set for Federer in these comparisons is impossibly high.

Added: I'm very surprised that Sailer chooses Don Bradman as his GOAL (greatest of all legends). I'm not gonna argue.