Month: November 2009

Escalation games markets in everything

Dick Thaler writes:

Swoopo has even sold cash using this format – specifically, checks for $1,000. My colleague Emir Kamenica and I looked at 26 such auctions we found in a data set posted on the Swoopo Web site. For each of these, the average revenue to Swoopo was $2,452. Winning bidders also did well: Of the winners, all but two made money even after accounting for the cost of their bids, with an average profit of $658. Still, the important point to remember is that, collectively, bidders are losing money. Only the lucky last bidder is a winner.

At the end of the column Thaler adds:

In my previous column, I tried to nudge Steve Jobs to have an app written for the Apple iPhone that would allow users to sign up easily to become organ donors.

Mr. Jobs can relax. Raymond Cheung from Serenity Integration read the column and made it happen. IPhone users can download the free Donate Lives app and sign up directly on their phones.

Jeremy Taylor quotes Richard Wrangham on the domestication of human beings

I think we have to start thinking about the idea that humans in the last 30, 40, or 50,000 years have been domesticating ourselves.  If we're following the bonobo or dog pattern, we're moving toward a form of ourselves with more and more juvenile behavior.  And the amazing thing once you start thinking in those terms is that you realize that we're still moving fast.  I think that current evidence is that we're in the middle of an evolutionary event in which tooth size is falling, jaw size is falling, brain size is falling, and it's quite reasonable to imagine that we're continuing to tame ourselves.  The way it's happening is the way it's probably happened since we became permanently settled in villages, 20 or 30,000 years ago, or before.

That's from Taylor's interesting new book Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human.  Taylor does stress that this hypothesis is speculation rather than established fact.

By the way, our skulls are becoming thinner, a process known as gracilization.

Umberto Eco on lists

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

…At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

…We like lists because we don't want to die.

Here is much more.  Make sure you read the quotation under the photo; I don't want to reproduce it on a family blog. 

I wonder if this interview was translated from some other language, given the difference between "lists" and "enumeration."  Here is an important MR post: Jeffrey Lonsdale writes.

I thank Cardiff Garcia for the pointer.

Assorted links

1. Via Jura Stanaityte, Ten simple rules for choosing industry vs. academia.  More simple rules here.

2. Is Bayh-Dole a "drug tax"?

3. "Tell-all" book about IKEA.

4. Countercyclical asset: haunted house novels?

5. China's empty city (of the day).  YouTube.  At about 1:20 you will see that a city built for one million residents remains empty, a' la Austro-Chinese business cycle theory.  "Ordos was a government idea, an infrastructure project taken to its limits, the motivation was likely gdp…"  — can you get better than that?  After the first minute or so the video is stunning.

Why do vampires attract so many readers and viewers?

Here is a WaPo piece which suggests it has to do with the transition from adolescence.  I recall another piece suggesting it had to do with the female fascination with gay men (is there one?).

Vampires are hardly "my thing," but I do like early Anne Rice, The Night Stalker, Herzog's Nosferatu, and I thought Coppola's Dracula movie was better than its reviews.  On the other hand, I couldn't get five pages into Twilight.  (Should I try True Blood?)

I believe vampire books and movies offer a few attractions:

1. You know from the beginning that the plot twists will have to be extreme.  Few movie makers offer up vampires who think pensively, talk inordinately, and live out ambiguous endings, sitting around in coffee shops.  A real vampire story is going to deal with death.

2. We are fascinated with the idea that people may be something other than what they appear to be.  You will notice that discovery and detection of vampires often plays a key role in the plot lines, sometimes commanding an inordinate amount of attention.

3. Vampire stories offer a platform for exploring the theme of pure, limitless, and eternal desire, yet without encountering the absurdities that might result from planting that theme in a realistic, real world setting, such as a man who loves cheese studded with raisins above all else.

4. Vampires play "hard to get" with women and they (for a while) embody Old World ideals of chivalry, in a plausible [sic] fashion.  Yet since they are fundamentally different beings, we can enjoy watching their strategies while simultaneously distancing ourselves from them.

5. Men may like vampire movies for date movies, for uh…priming reasons.  The movies prompt dramatic, emotional reactions in their companions.  Women may feel that such movies "test" how their men respond to highly fraught stories, with a potential for demonstrating protectiveness.  Or vice versa.  

6. Vampires do not seem to mind social disapproval, and in this sense many teens look to them as role models.

7. Some of the popularity is arbitrary with respect to the vampire theme itself.  There is a clustering of production in any successful cultural meme, once that meme gets underway.  You might as well ask why there is so much heavy metal music today.

8. Viewers and readers, who know vampire lore and thus vampire vulnerabilities, feel better informed than the high-status people who, in the drama, are fighting the vampires.

9. There are few successful songs or paintings about vampires, so the story-based aspects of the topic appear to be important in setting their popularity.

Here is an unorthodox answer to the question.

Different rooftops

As the system gets gamed, the costs will be much, much higher than the CBO is estimating.

Arnold Kling explains his words in more detail.  Elsewhere:

If you think of the social cost of this bill it's well below $900 billion. If we could collect in tax revenues all the dollars in savings and new wages that people will get because of this bill, it would bring the cost well below $900 billion.

Jonathan Gruber explains his words in more detail.

Innumeracy can get you killed

"Statistically, it is very dangerous, but I have lived here a long time and I don't feel like I'm in any danger."

That is Justin Fenton, the Baltimore Sun's crime correspondent.

The quote comes from a longer article by a British reporter who switched places with his Baltimore counterpart because he wanted to see whether The Wire was accurate.  It is

Markets in everything: 8 year old child custody for two Damien Hirsts edition

Kapernekas, a 49-year-old New York art dealer filed a suit
in federal court in Manhattan claiming an interest in the two
Hirsts, which have been valued at an estimated $47.6 million,
court documents show. The custody suit, involving their 8-year-
old daughter, was being heard in New York County Family Court.

Kapernekas has agreed to drop the federal suit and claims
on the Hirsts in exchange for: custody of their daughter
(Brandhorst gets visitation and vacation rights); a one-time
payment of $100,000; a $500,000 trust for the daughter’s
education; a loft on Wooster Street in Manhattan’s Soho district
valued at about $5 million to be held in the daughter’s name as
sole owner; $5,000 a month in child support; and $640,000 to
cover Kapernekas’s legal expenses, according to Kapernekas.

The full story is here and the pointer is from Felix Salmon.  Felix writes:

Need I add that one of the Hirsts is entitled “In this terrible moment
we are victims clinging helplessly to an environment that refuses to
acknowledge the soul”?

Range voting

A few readers asked me to discuss range voting.  Wikipedia defines it as following:

Range voting (also called ratings summation, average voting, cardinal ratings, score voting, 0–99 voting, or the score system or point system) is a voting system for one-seat elections under which voters score each candidate, the scores are added up, and the candidate with the highest score wins. Range voting was used in all public elections in Ancient Sparta in the form of measuring how loud the crowd shouted for different candidates.[1] Approval voting can be considered to be range voting with only 2 levels (approved (1) and disapproved (0)).

The main question to get out of your head is whether or not range voting satisfies Arrow's Impossibility Theorem.  (In fact it doesn't, most forms of range voting violate the independence of irrelevant alternatives, but don't worry about that!).  There's no major reason why a democratic system should follow all of Arrow's axioms as defined across universal domain, which means you have to rule out the very possibility of paradoxes.  Can anyone do that?  No, not even when you're deciding which book to read next.  (But should you stop reading?  No.)  We do, however, care if the system can:

1. Deliver decent economic growth and an acceptable level of civil liberties.

2. Build consensus and legitimacy going forward, and

3. Toss out the truly bad politicians.

Ideally, we'd even like:

4. The democratic process itself educates people, raises the level of discourse, and makes for a better society.

On those counts, it is not clear what advantage range voting brings over either a two-party winner-take-all system or some form of proportional representation.  Do we really need to count the preference intensity of voters?  That could sooner be harmful in extreme situations.  Do we really need to teach voters complicated aggregation systems?  The relatively well-educated Germans used a "vote twice but ultimately only the party vote counts" form of PR and for decades most of them never understood it and now they are changing it, finally.

Most countries don't use range voting.  Ireland and Tasmania have had some experience with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.  What happens is that a bunch of candidates run for each post, party identification is weak, and reps emphasize constituency service.  That's probably the major dominant effect, namely that most systems of range voting weaken political parties.

The bottom line: Range voting is a solution in search of a problem.  The main problems with democracy include poorly informed, irrational, and short-term voters and politicians.  Range voting doesn't cure any of those and arguably by weakening party affiliation it makes some of them worse.

What I’ve been reading

1. Momofuku, by David Chang and Peter Meehan.  This Nelson/Winter treatise on industrial organization teaches you the evolution of recipes and restaurants and (most of all) the mistakes made along the way.  Smokiness is an important concept in Japanese food, pickling and fermentation are underrated cooking techniques, a cook can learn from a heart surgeon, people will pay $80 for a ribeye steak without fancy decor, and you can cook semi-safe sous vide at home (suck the air out with a straw).  Recommended.

2. Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York, by William Grimes.  A book like this has to have something interesting and indeed this one does.  There is an excellent chapter on how oysters once were "New York City food," akin to lobster in Maine or crab in Maryland.  No more.  The rest of the book remains oddly distant from the eating experiences of real people and overall I was disappointed.

3. Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, by Ken Auletta.  In the abstract this is quite a good book and if someone woke up from a time capsule from 1969 you would start him with this.  Too much of it was familiar to me, though.

4. Timothy Egan, Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America.  Impeccably written and well-researched, but it bored me.  Spellbinding portraits of characters, etc. Not enough of a point and of course the fire was not what saved America.  Many people like it, though, so don't let me put you off.

5. The Lives of the Brain: Human Evolution and the Organ of Mind, by John S. Allen.  A very good Belknap Press introduction to recent research on cognition, especially cognition and language.  An antidote to many things you have read in Pinker.  It's a bit of a "tweener" book: it doesn't take you "by the hand" through the results but it also doesn't assume that you are a research scientist.  It was written at a good level for me, but some readers may wish for more explanation of the results.