Sentences from Sony

by on December 22, 2014 at 8:32 am in Economics, Film | Permalink

We have learned in testing that moviegoers respond favorably to Kim Jong-Un when he is seen as more of a recluse who can be charming at times as opposed to a person who is simply a dangerous dictator.

There is more here, on possible commercial reactions to The Interview, interesting throughout.  The pointer is from Adam Minter.

Nicaragua plans to begin building access roads and highways on Monday near the country’s Pacific coast as it starts work on a $50 billion inter-oceanic canal meant to rival Panama’s century-old waterway.

…At an estimated cost more than four times the size of Nicaragua’s $11 billion economy, the project has raised doubts among analysts who point to HKND’s lack of experience in major infrastructure projects and question the need for another Central American canal. Panama is planning to complete a $5.25 billion expansion of its waterway next year.

“I think there is some skepticism about it getting built and getting built on time and on budget,” said Lee Klaskow, a marine shipping analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “There are a bunch of active volcanoes in and around the area.”

Nicaragua’s canal would also require higher locks than Panama’s since it is 20 feet more above sea level he said.

There is more from Bloomberg here.  Here is further coverage:

No feasibility study, environmental-impact report, business case or financing plan has yet been released. Instead come platitudes from the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega about how it will bring a jobs bonanza and end poverty.

So far, it has brought as much fear as hope. Since Chinese-speaking surveyors, backed by Nicaraguan soldiers and police, began assessing land and houses along the canal’s proposed 278km (172-mile) route a few months ago (see map), peasants fearful of their land being expropriated have taken to the streets 16 times. On December 10th several thousand, shouting “We don’t want the Chinese”, protested in Managua, the capital, despite police efforts to keep them in their villages, activists say. Boatmen in Punta Gorda on the Caribbean coast have refused to ferry heavy machinery to be used to begin construction, fearing their livelihoods will be harmed.

Maybe the equilibrium here is “start first, plan later” — what does that imply about the nature of the underlying game?   We’re going to see how good that vaunted Chinese soft power really is.

From Paul Mason, here is the summary bit:

So a worst-case scenario under a Syriza victory is: short-term repayment crisis, botched negotiations with the EU, social upheaval, capital flight and default.

A best-case scenario – for Syriza – would see its EU allies force a long-term debt deal, but it would have to ride out and tactically manoeuvre on the 2015 debt repayments, as suggested above, and there would still be massive social upheaval.

Most of the post is more detailed, and considers possible debt scenarios, clear and useful throughout, a good way to get up to speed on the Greek situation again.

Assorted links

by on December 21, 2014 at 1:38 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Should you publish a book with too many hyphens?

2. Japan Senior Cheer Association (mostly video), and more here.

3. Kangaroos against drones.

4. It’s odd that such a category even exists (“Top 10 feminist fiascoes of 2014″).  This is a good example of how media focus on events which raise or lower the status of particular groups, rather than focusing on events which actually impact human welfare.

5. The roots of a walkable Tysons community?

There is a good interview with Paul Fischer, who has studied this and related topics, here is one bit:

The way Americans are shown is equally counterfactual. There’s a long-running film franchise in North Korea that Kim Jong-il started called — depending on how you translate — Unknown Heroes or Unsung Heroes. It’s all about undercover spies, and the villains in every single one of them are dastardly Americans with bad hair and plans to kill children or poison people with AIDS. So there’s a sense in which the anger about The Interview being offensive to North Koreans is a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black. One of the weird things about The Interview situation is that in real life Kim Jong-un is this short, fat young guy who’s running a failed, bankrupt irrelevant state. I haven’t seen The Interview, of course, but from the trailers they make Kim Jong-un look like this broad-shouldered, badass cigar-smoking leader of an awesomely dangerous state. It’s actually a flattering portrayal. But it’s like with any kind of bully: They don’t get the joke. The fact that the joke exists is threatening.

There is a video example  of Americans in North Korean film at the link.  This is interesting too:

The country found The Interview‘s portrayal of Kim Jong-un to be hugely offensive. Are the Kims ever portrayed by actors in North Korea?
I believe there’s one film biography of Kim Il-sung — called either The Sun of Korea or The Star of Korea — where he’s played by an actor. Allegedly, this was a guy who they brought in and gave plastic surgery to so that he looked like Kim Il-sung and then, when they were done with him, they sent him off to the concentration camps. That’s the only time, because the thinking was, How do you have a guy play god? How do you paint god? So, with the Interview, the idea that there was an American playing the great leader, and playing him for laughs, and getting killed at the end — that just couldn’t be allowed.

Here is a new research paper by Voskobvoynikov and Solanko, but dating before the collapse in oil prices:

Based on newly available data, we argue that multifactor productivity increases over the period 1995-2008 generated only about a half of Russia’s GDP growth, a smaller increase than most previous estimates. Further, growth in multifactor productivity seems to have contributed to a smaller share of GDP growth in 2003-2008 than in the first seven years of our observation period. These results imply that increases in capital inputs, and consequently investments in fixed capital, are more important than previously thought for Russia’s economic growth. Detailed analysis of industry-level data reveals two drivers of economic growth in the period: the extended oil & gas sector and high-skill-intensive services. Our analysis indicates that growth in the extended oil & gas sector reflected increased capital inputs, while growth in high-skill-intensive services seems to be part of catching up with more advanced markets. Neither sector is likely to spur growth in the coming decade.

The paper itself is here, via www.bookforum.com.

Assorted links

by on December 20, 2014 at 3:21 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. One million mummies.

2. Schemes to clean up Beijing’s air.

3. National security Christmas gifts.

4. How do people encounter bourbon?

5. Krugman’s model of monetary impotence. and more here.  I say if there is no representative agent, there is a game-theoretic scramble for goods in period one, following an increase in the (purely current) money supply.  That said, you still shouldn’t expect the quantity equation to apply to the monetary base.  Scott Sumner responds here.  Empirically, the problem is to explain both Switzerland and the UK (some price inflation over five percent), not to cite one or the other.  I say that depends on what the central bank/government wants, not time consistency issues by the way.

6. Does the plasticity of human nature favor conservatism?

Here are the last few paragraphs from Global Times:

The US society stands on the upper stream of global competition of culture. It needs to show some good manners instead of being too aggressive. The American elites should not just speak like gentlemen, but behave like them.

The biggest motive for Sony Pictures may be the box office, by putting out a sensational story. However, if the movie really was shown on a large scale, it would further upset the already troubled US-North Korea ties.

Some people in the US have complained that China has been suppressing Hollywood’s freedom of creativity through economic power. Actually China should further stick to principles when dealing with Hollywood.

Apparently, it is easier to show them the economic consequences than trying to reason with them.

There is this bit too:

Americans always believe they can jab at other countries’ leaders just because they are free to criticize or make fun of their own state leaders. Actually the countries targeted in Hollywood movies are very selective, such as the Cold War era’s Soviet Union, North Korea and Iran.

China used to be also portrayed in a negative light occasionally. Now that the Chinese market has become a gold mine for US movies, Hollywood has begun to show an increasingly friendly face, just in order to attract more Chinese viewers.

The full analysis is here, interesting throughout, via the excellent Adam Minter.

Lucy Kellaway of the FT reports that “food, activities and even spa treatments are chocolate-themed,” here is one description from another source:

A dessert island fantasy, Boucan by Hotel Chocolat in St Lucia seems made for chocolate lovers. The jungle-surrounded hilltop lodges – with views of the Caribbean Sea and Petit Piton peak – perch beside a cacao plantation that hosts classes and tours, with plenty of samples. The ultra-local restaurant serves some of the island’s best food, including chocolate in both sweet and savoury preparations. Though the hotel natural setting is relaxing enough to help you forget it all, cocoa is rarely far from mind: the superlative spa even uses homegrown pods in its massage treatments.

That link is here, a full set of links is here.  For breakfast they serve chocolate tea and chocolate muesli, and for dinner the tuna steak is cooked over bitter chocolate.

What I’ve been reading

by on December 20, 2014 at 12:15 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology.  How quantum effects can matter for biological phenomena.  No, it doesn’t mean Roger Penrose was right (and this book usefully tells you why not), but still this is a stimulating book for tying together two apparently disparate areas of inquiry and two apparently disparate areas for popular science books.

2. Michael Oakeshott, Notebooks, 1922-86.  Lots about Aristotle, lots about love, good for browsing.  He wrote “‘The cowboy costume remains mysteriously sexy’.  Yes, but how much better it was when it was felt but not recognized to be so.”  That was from 1964.

3. James Hamilton, A Strange Business: Making Art and Money in Nineteenth-Century Britain.  Another era — this time Turner and his contemporaries — falls under the commerce and culture treatment.  A nice background to the forthcoming Mike Leigh biopic of Turner.  This book made a number of best of the year lists in the UK, it comes out in the U.S. in 2015.

4. James Booth, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love.  A very good multi-dimensional biography for people already interested in Larkin and knowledgeable about his life, not necessarily a great introduction.

5. Clive James, Poetry Notebook 2006-2014.  A superb book, one of the very best appreciations of poetry and introductions to poetry of the 20th century.  This book has received raves in the UK, it is not yet out in the U.S.

Arrived in my pile are:

6. Alex Nowrasteh and Mark Krikorian, Open Immigration Yea, and Nay.  This book is structured as a debate with two separate parts.

7.  Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe, and Ronnie Schöb, Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, from MIT Press.

8. F. Bailey Norwood, et.al., Agricultural & Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know.

9. Andrew Zimbalist, Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.

Assorted links

by on December 19, 2014 at 11:46 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The troubles of Russia.  And Krugman’s notes on Russian debt.

2. Searching for (Canadian) Elizabeth Gallagher.

3. Qatar soccer markets in everything.

4. Prosecutors and defense lawyers on Serial.

5. “It’s the people that are carrying stuff like chainsaws that make me wonder.”

6. The 109-year-old tuatara virgin.

7. George Clooney on Sony and North Korea.

8. “Everything in her working life is organized around the illness…”

Predatory Fining and Mass Surveillance

by on December 19, 2014 at 11:40 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I noted that Ferguson raises an unusually high rate of revenues from fines.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

It doesn’t inspire confidence, therefore, when we learn that Ferguson plans to increase its reliance on police fines as a source of revenue.

Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.

Missouri’s attorney general, however, wants to enforce limits on predatory fining:

Missouri’s attorney general announced lawsuits against 13 of this city’s suburbs on Thursday, accusing them of ignoring a law that sets limits on revenue derived from traffic fines. The move comes after widespread allegations of harassment and profiteering by small municipal governments against the poor and minorities.

…demonstrators have frequently complained about a perceived hypervigilance to minor traffic violations in St. Louis County’s patchwork of 90 municipalities. Many of those cities have their own courts and police departments, but some are only a few square blocks in size and have populations smaller than some high schools.

“When traffic ticketing is used to promote public safety, that’s appropriate,” Mr. Koster said. “When traffic tickets are used to promote revenue, that’s inappropriate.” Such practices, he said, are “predatory.”

(Technically Ferguson isn’t one of the smaller governments being sued but the battle lines are being drawn.)

The current focus on predatory fining and minorities is well justified but these issues are also the spearhead for important changes being brought about by the intersection of policing and mass surveillance. We all commit multiple felonies regularly, no one is innocent. Today most of our violations are simply ignored, never discovered nor prosecuted, but when the eye turns to us we won’t have a defense. As a result, as Stephen Carter wrote in a superb editorial, technological change and the law puts us all in the same danger as Eric Garner.

Hat tip: Michael Cohen.

Printing Cancer Killing Viruses

by on December 19, 2014 at 4:50 am in Economics, Science | Permalink

Cell biologist Andrew Hessel of Autodesk is designing viruses in software to attack a specific individual’s cancer and then using DNA Printers to create the viruses as a drug. Here from an interview with New Scientist (gated).

It’s really about making a specific medicine tailored to one person–“N-of-1″ medicine–rather than try to make it a best fit for a whole population. My vision is to create a personalized treatment that can be made in a day by printing bespoke cancer-fighting viruses.

I’m not fully convinced by his economic model but it may be useful as a vision-goal:

I see the business model shifting away from the blockbuster-drug model of the pharma industry–getting the best product for the most people and charging the most for it–to more of a Netflix model, in which you might purchase a subscription for all-that-you-need medicine to manage your cancer.

…I’m pretty sure I can get the virus printing costs down to a dollar a dose. The virus itself is designed by algorithms using diagnostic data from the patient. That info is put into a program that will design the cancer-fighting virus, so the cost of design is cheap. Then there’s testing, and there is no simpler test than on the patient’s own cancer cells in a dish. So that whole process should cost less than $100 end-to-end. If you are on a cancer subscription model paying $100 a month, I see that as ultimately profitable.

Hessel is also far too sanguine about the FDA who he thinks will allow this under “compassionate use.” No way – not today when the FDA prohibits 23andMe from even providing information about DNA and its probable consequences, see my post Our DNA, Our Selves. To make this a reality we will need scientific breakthroughs and also A New FDA for the Age of Personalized Medicine.

In particular, about 57% of the papers accepted by the first committee were rejected by the second one and vice versa. In other words, most papers at NIPS would be rejected if one reran the conference review process (with a 95% confidence interval of 40-75%)

Here is another framing:

If the committees were purely random, at a 22.5% acceptance rate they would disagree on 77.5% of their acceptance lists on average.

That is from Eric Price on the NIPS experiment, there is more here.

For the pointer I thank a loyal MR reader.

I now regularly find that when I buy something from a cashier — especially small ticket items — that I have the option of tipping the salesperson.  There will be a cup for tips, or the space to write a tip into the credit card transaction.  If I buy a gelato, or a newspaper in the airport, these tipping chances present themselves.

I take it there are a few classes of customer:

1. Those who are looking for chances to tip more, to feel good about themselves.

2. Those who are uncertain about when they should be tipping, and who will now enter a tip to avoid feeling bad, out of fear that the social default has shifted toward tipping in some additional arena.  They don’t prefer to tip, but they figure they are supposed to, and do not therefore hold a grudge.

3. Those who are indifferent to this new possibility, or perhaps who actively resent it, and who will leave no tip at all and do not feel guilty about that.

4. Those who aren’t sure what they should be doing, ultimately decide against the tip, feel bad about this, identify the establishment which made them feel bad, and avoid that establishment in the future.

If the share of individuals described by #4 is sufficiently large, suppliers will be reluctant to create new tipping opportunities, but it seems that is not the case.  And so the practice of tipping is spreading.  Note that as new tipping opportunities spread, uncertainty about the true social defaults increases (“hmm…maybe coffee servers do deserve a tip…”) and that increases the share of individuals who fall into #2.  Which in turn raises the profitability of creating new tipping opportunities, which in turn muddies the understanding of social defaults, and so on.  That is indeed the Dantean inferno we live in these days.

As a good Coasian, I feel tipping makes most sense when the quality of service potentially varies, and is elastic to the effort of the server.  Those are not the boosts in tipping opportunities which I am observing.  I’ve never had anyone scoop me a bad gelato, but service quality at the supermarket checkout varies a good deal, mostly depending on whether the cashier knows not to engage the (other) customers in too much chatter.