Monday, August 31, 2009

I wonder if Morpheus ever even really tried to explain


I've been keeping an eye on the odds for the US Open. They'd been holding steady though the last two tournaments but there was a bit of activity in the last week even though no top players were playing. I'd guess that's just because people are only starting to bet now.

Federer's odds have shortened a bit while both Murray and Nadal's have lengthened.

Interestingly, Federer's odds are now the same as Laver's before Wimbledon in 1969 and yes I do think that's significant.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A small point

Reading a bit about Woods for the past while and pondering the pressing question of whether he's greater than Federer I sometimes get the impression that results are interpreted too much in his favor. It has a lot to do with the large role of randomness in golf. Even at his best the probability of Tiger winning a major isn't much higher than 50% while obscure players quite often win big tournaments, so individual losses do little to damage anyone's reputation.
This is all right, but one can take it too far.

Using the final round of the recent US PGA as an example, one cannot consistently believe all of the following propositions.
  • Going into the final round, Woods was overwhelmingly likely to win.
  • Winning would have boosted his reputation by a small, but significant amount.
  • Losing his lead does very little to damage his reputation.

If you agree with the first two, his reputation should suffer from losing much more than it would have been enhanced by his winning.

My impression is that many people believe all three of these propositions.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

As some readers will know, the trendiness of some foreign films is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I think the ones that do well in the west are generally very similar to mainstream American films but seem exotic and different because they're in a different language and the actors are unfamiliar.

This is what I thought Slumdog Millionaire would be like and I think that's more or less right. I thought it was enjoyable and good.

The poverty stuff was horrible and it makes the reasonable point that mocking someone for not knowing the motto on on India's national emblem is as silly as mocking someone for not knowing who stole some particular item. The rich know different things but that isn't in itself admirable.

But otherwise, I don't get it. There are things that I think are problems, but perhaps that's just me not getting stuff. There was a love story, which was very sweet, but it's more a vehicle to show off how awesome Jamal is than anything else. Latika is barely a character and there's never a chance to explore their relationship at all. Telling Jamal's life story through the questions is a clever idea, but it's a clever gimmick, it isn't anything more than an excuse to tell us about some parts of his past. Having once handled a gun isn't an explanation for why he knows which was the first commercially successful gun.

I also thought the violence was a little odd. The gang stuff feels about the same as City of God and it makes sense; kids growing up in poverty without parents, why wouldn't they be in gangs? But unlike Rio, India has an extremely low murder rate. I think one of the reasons people like the film is because we hardly know anything about India. I think it'd have been more interesting if the film attempted to shed some light on why those conditions don't generally lead to violence.

Anyway, I liked it, I just don't really get why people go so crazy over it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I watched Slumdog Millionaire

and I'm disturbed but how easy it is to make torturers sympathetic characters in films. This is hardly the first film to do it, it's just the most recent that I've seen.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pascal's mugging

A commenter over at Trevor's blog asks about Pascal's wager. The standard reply is that it doesn't help you decide which go to believe in and we don't know how impressed by such a cynical motivation for belief.

But in my comment focuses on the problems created by infinite (or Really Big) utilities. Getting to heaven is infinitely valuable, so any probability of getting there is also infinitely valuable and so is any increase in the odds of getting there.

So any activity that increases our chances of getting to heaven is much more important than anything else we ever do. Yet I've yet to meet someone who really organises her life accordingly.

Most people argue that believing in god or being a christian or whatever is enough. But unless they're literally 100% sure that they're going to heaven this response doesn't work. And I guess many people are 100% sure. But that strikes me as really really dumb. I think many people don't understand what it means to be 100% sure...


England won the Ashes. I'm thrilled.

I don't know enough about Adrew Flintoff to explain why I dislike him, I just do. So the "defining image" of the series being him celebrating after running Ponting out in his last ever test match makes me a little nauseous.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Lockerbie bomber

Has been in the news recently. Everything I know about the attack (other than that it happened) I found out because of the story. While I don't have a strong opinion about his release, I didn't like the cheering on his arrival back in Libya, which I very much doubt was just friends and family happy to see him again.

The thing that I find odd though is how often the fact that he didn't show compassion for his victims (as I understand it there's a lot of doubt over the extent of his involvement) has been used as an argument against his release on compassionate grounds.

I shouldn't find it odd, an eye for an eye is one of the most common phrases you'll hear in a discussion about punishment. But it is not something that anyone applies consistently! I seldom hear people arguing that torturers be tortured or rapists raped (though people often seem to like the fact that this may happen in prison). It isn't a principle that we associate with a civilised society because we like to think we're better than the criminals. Haven't we been talking about this recently in the torture debate?

I don't think anyone who's used this line in the Lockerbie case wants criminals hands cut off or anything, so I don't know why citing the criminal's own behaviour here seems like such a reasonable argument.

the punishment light

For a long time, particular traffic lights have annoyed me out of proportion to the actual effect on my life. That's not something to be especially proud of. But not only did I recently find this comic. There is an episode of Weeds (which is brilliant) called "The Punishment Light" in which the main character complains that the light's sole purpose is to make her life miserable.

It's nice to know that one isn't alone.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

crap :(

Technical problems prevented me from liveblogging the men's 200m final. Sorry everyone.

That Bolt dude is pretty good.


I once expressed shock that Peter Singer apparently had never really thought of immigration as a way of reducing world poverty. The guy is a genius who's spent a large part of his life thinking about the question. What's his excuse?

Well, Niall Ferguson is another academic superstar. I've bought several of his books (and someday may read one). He also writes for the FT where he recently said (in an article on the US federal budget deficit)
President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.
A number of other pundits (most notably James Fallows and Paul Krugman) responded with a collective "What the hell", which Ferguson took issue with and responded that his black friends didn't have a problem with his comparison. He quotes one of these friends with approval
None of us thought of Felix as black, unlike some of the racially-questionable caricatures Disney used. Felix's blackness, like Mickey's and Minnie's, was like a suit of clothes, not a skin color.
Riiiiiggghhhht. So Ferguson thinks the cat's colour is beside the point but compares him to Obama by starting, "Felix was not only black...".

It's just so lame yet he persists. Why?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I think

I like this guy because he's like me (only much funnier and more intelligent). I spent a lot of time walking to the corner flat in Smuts and Fuller. I found that I would walk around the palm tree on opposite side depending on which direction I was going. In both cases because I thought I was taking the quicker route. This disturbed me because obviously it was the same distance each way but...

another puzzel

About 2 weeks ago a car was abandoned in the emergency lane of the road on my route to work. It was an oldish Jetta in good condition. There were no hazard lights or anything to alert people to its presence and it was on a curving rise, which, given that there are many trucks trying to let people through on curving rises, is very dangerous, especially in the dark with no street lights. And it stayed there for four days! That seemed like a long time for a nice car to be abandoned in an odd spot. It eventually disappeared, which is as likely a result of towing as its owner claiming it.

Odd, but not too remarkable, except that now another, even nicer car has been abandoned in exactly the same place! Last night its hazards were on, but this morning the battery had obviously run down. So there it sits. There is no obvious destination within easy walking distance.

Any obvious explanations I'm missing?

More on Woods

Here's a piece in the Telegraph about his behaviour during his loss on Sunday. I don't find it as off putting as threatening to break a photographer's neck, but in golfing terms it sounds worse, because apparently he didn't follow the standard etiquette. Walking to the next hole before your playing partner is finished is something even I might have know not to do, especially since he inevitably dragged a bunch of spectators with him, who inevitably made more noise than they should have.

I have a phenomenal bias, but it strikes me as weird that Federer's reputation seems to have taken a much bigger knock for wearing a top that said 15 on the back after Wimbledon, than Woods' has for this kind of behaviour.

Added: I've been Googling around and it seems reasonably clear that anyone who knows much about golf knows about his swearing and club smashing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


When I was in matric I went through a phase of looking for patterns in the number plates of other cars on the way to school. It got to the point that I started to recognise a large number of individual cars on our route.
During this time I was also looking out for cars who's flickers were in sync. It's good to know there are others out there.

I really don't understand golf

I don't understand anything about it, not least why it's such an enormous global sport.

But the puzzle on my mind at the moment is golf etiquette, or why is it acceptable for golfers to act like complete assholes when they insist (utterly humorlessly) on such a strict code of conduct. It's true that the horrible behaviour is usually in response to a breach of the code -If a photographer takes a picture during your swing- obviously it's okay to threaten to kill him and get him banned from the tour for life, but not always.

I'd heard from Greg that Tiger is pretty bad tempered on the course, but I didn't realise how bad it was. Apparently he swears and smashes his clubs a lot in response to bad shots. I hardly ever watch golf, so I don't know how often TV viewers get to see these outbursts, but my understanding is that there's a small delay in transmission and it's pretty easy to edit them out or just cut to a different hole. How many people even know about his temper? I came across this article in the Guardian that suggests that the price of reporting on Woods' temper is that you'll never get an interview with Woods again (of course this may turn out not to be true).

Even when I'm really trying, I am unable to avoid violating golfing etiquette, but generally, from what I've seen, golfers at tiny little golf clubs and professionals can just be dicks and be immune from any kind of censure.

Why don't we teach useful maths?

Monday, August 17, 2009


The Telegraph has a short piece about how Usain Bolt is challenging Muhammad Ali for the title of greatest ever sportsman. Well fair enough, though not my choices. But he also quickly considers other contenders
Yes, Tiger Woods is a wonderful golfer, Rafael Nadal majestic on court, Ronaldo exquisite on the ball.

But none of them are doing what Bolt continues to do - and make what we can all do, to a greater or lesser extent, look so easy, yet so fast.
Nadal? Seriously?


Usain Bolt ran 9.58s last night. Even without knowing about the time I was surprised he didn't run away with it more, so good for Tyson Gay. Amazing.

Tiger Woods loses by three shots after going into the final round leading by two. Almost unthinkable.

And Andy Murray is now ranked second in the world! The first time in just over 4 years that it's not Nadal or Federer. It makes me a little sad, especially because of the role his injury played. Not that I'm sad that Federer took over as number one or anything.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

killer facts!

The 2005 Wimbledon final between Roddick and Federer was 6 minutes longer than the fifth set of this year's final. There was one more game and 9 more points*.

*citation needed!

Market worship

Here's Matt Yglesias being annoying through Paul Krugman.
Since the crisis, people who always thought strong claims about efficient financial markets were wrong have been feeling vindicated. But I don’t see much evidence of anyone having changed their minds. Nor have the big banks lost any clout on the Hill. Nothing really seems changed. To an extent, I suppose this is a consequence of the fact that Bernanke and Geithner succeeded in avoiding the total collapse of the world economy. Maybe we’re doomed to an escalating series of crashes—’87 stock crash, LTCM collapse, tech bubble, Panic of 2008—until something happens that the lenders of last resort can’t save us.
The annoying thing is that many pro-market people have always known about crashes and expected another one sometime. Few people may have predicted things playing out in the way they did, but it still fits in with the general pattern.

I didn't realise that we were crediting Bernanke and Geithner with preventing a "total collapse of the world economy". Wow. I really think people should go easy on this kind of imagery. Maybe by collapse they mean something like world GDP shrinking by 10%, and that would be terrible, but that's not what it makes people think of and he knows that. True collapse would involve something like nuclear weapons destroying most of the world.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Matt Yglesias

usually annoys me because he really seems to believe that people with the wrong politics are evil and/or stupid. He's reasonably good at resisting agreeing with typical left wing positions for the purposes of group solidarity.

Anyway, he takes up Tyler's challenge to come up with an intelligent version of libertarianism and I'd say does it pretty well. Good for him
A separate issue is the welfare of the world’s poorest. Progressive internationalists have this kind of dopey vision of trying to make trade and immigration policy win-win-win for everyone by using redistributive taxation to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits. That sounds nice, but it means that in addition to trying to conquer people’s racist and nationalistic instincts you’re also engaged in a fight to pry wealth out of the hands of the wealthy and powerful. As a political strategy, it doesn’t really make much sense. Why not simply join forces with the wealthy and powerful so as to create a political coalition that’s plausibly capable of overwhelming xenophobia and creating borders that are relatively open to the flow of goods and labor?
Tyler's I'd guess is closer to how progressives would likely self describe, but that's not the point.

Saturday, August 08, 2009


This is just fantastic

Friday, August 07, 2009

This is why I love Tyler Cowen

Arnold Kling asks what progressives believe in this post. I don't think his own answer is that far wrong but it still sounds like a libertarian who fundamentally disagrees/dislikes with progressives. When Tyler has a go at the question it sounds like he believes in it. While he's not a progressive he does agree with some of his points, but it's hard to tell which ones.

I'd say that most of his posts don't interest me, but when he goes into this mode there's no one I'd rather read.