Month: February 2015

From the comments: how to restructure basketball (and other sports?)

Kevin Erdmann writes:

I think basketball would be vastly improved if after the 3rd quarter, we just added 20 points to the higher score, and said, first team to that score wins.

Or, for that matter, make it score based instead of time based. It’s halftime when one team gets to 30, and the game is over when one team gets to 60.

It gets rid of all the fouling and time outs at the end of close games, and it means that it doesn’t serve any purpose for the winning team to drain the clock. And, it means that a team that falls far behind has more of a chance to catch up – like in baseball.

Of course this would not maximize ad revenue, which tends to increase with close games as the number of timeouts rises.  Furthermore perhaps people do not enjoy the outcome as much if they do not have to wait a bit for it.  Nonetheless an interesting idea.

Hayek on Mill and the Mill-Taylor Friendship

That is the newly published volume 16 of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, edited by Sandra J. Peart.  Of course this is splendid from beginning to end, including Peart’s introduction, the letters, Hayek’s commentary, and assorted documents, and the book even contains three very nice poems written by Harriet Taylor.

Is Hayek here blaming Taylor for moving Mill in a collectivist direction?  Is that the Straussian reading of this book and the reason why Hayek did it?

If there were a phrase for “one step above and beyond self-recommending,” this volume would get it.

Robot sentences to ponder

Ironically, given all the concerns about robots destroying jobs, Mr Tsuda said one of the main constraints on the market’s growth was a shortage of human engineers.

“To use robots — not just to make them — you need quite a level of engineering,” he said. “If anything, for us and the market as a whole, growth is held back by the number of engineers who can do that.”

From Robin Harding at the FT, there is more here.

Algorithm Aversion

People don’t like deferring to what I earlier called an opaque intelligence. In a paper titled Algorithm Aversion the authors write:

Research shows that evidence-based algorithms more accurately predict the future than do human forecasters. Yet, when forecasters are deciding whether to use a human forecaster or a statistical algorithm, they often choose the human forecaster. This phenomenon, which we call algorithm aversion, is costly, and it is important to understand its causes. We show that people are especially averse to algorithmic forecasters after seeing them perform, even when they see them outperform a human forecaster. This is because people more quickly lose confidence in algorithmic than human forecasters after seeing them make the same mistake. In five studies, participants either saw an algorithm make forecasts, a human make forecasts, both, or neither. They then decided whether to tie their incentives to the future predictions of the algorithm or the human. Participants who saw the algorithm perform were less confident in it, and less likely to choose it over an inferior human forecaster. This was true even among those who saw the algorithm outperform the human.

People who defer to the algorithm will outperform those who don’t, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, will reason atrophy when we defer, just as our map-reading skills have atrophied with GPS? Or will more of our limited resource of reason come to be better allocated according to comparative advantage?

Why is the British electorate fragmenting?

The Economist, referring to “six-party politics,” reports:

In 1951 the Conservative and Labour parties together scooped 97% of the vote; in May, opinion polls suggest, they will each win barely a third.

You will note that the UK has a fairly strict “first past the post” system, so if such fragmentation happens in their system perhaps it could happen anywhere.  A second Economist article offers a few hypotheses about why this is happening:

1. People are now used to shopping in markets, and on the internet, for exactly what they want.

2. Politics has become increasingly multi-dimensional; this article cites the possibility that a “libertarian-authoritarian” axis may be replacing “left-right,” or consider the issue of Scottish independence.

3. Perhaps current politicians are less skilled than Thatcher and Blair at attracting the allegiance of a broad cross-section of British society.

I worry that the general decline of discretionary government spending may make politics less stable (but also more interesting, not necessarily in a good way).  When there is plenty of spending to bicker about, politics revolves around that question, which is relatively harmless.  When all the spending is tied up, we move closer to the battlefield of symbolic goods, bringing us back to “less stable and more interesting.”  If that is a cause, this trend is likely to spread.  (In a new paper David Schleicher argues that electoral reform may not stop polarization and splintering.)

Arguably a good deal of American politics is a cloaked debate over whether a particular kind of Christian worldview ought to enjoy higher or lower social status.  Since Britain doesn’t have much religion, perhaps that is why they are fragmenting in so many other directions.  Exactly which British debate is supposed to be imposing the uni-dimensionality on the political spectrum?

Assorted Greek links (Greece lost)

1. The new Greek deal and trustDie Welt (in German) says that Greece has four months to get its act in order, otherwise prepare for an orderly exit.  Here is the comment of the Greek government issued at the end of the Eurogroup meeting, worth a read.  Here is a Rubens painting of Achilles.

2. Numerous sources suggest that without a deal, Greek banks would have been broke on Tuesday (Monday is a holiday there).  Given game theory, does this raise or lower your opinion of the quality of the deal that was cut?

3. Peter Spiegel notes on Twitter: “Morning after: still not sure why picked this fight. Got v little, & spent lots of political capital they need for 3rd progm negs”

4. The struggle resumes on Monday, with further negotiations required to define the actual substance of the policy reform part of the agreement.

5. It seems to me that if you put aside the talk, and the creative ambiguity on the primary surplus numbers, that overall Greece is on a shorter leash than before.  The Germans have shown credibly that they are willing to live with Grexit, Syriza showed it doesn’t have a Plan B, doesn’t have so much support within the eurozone, and it is revealed that Greek deposit flight is on a trigger-sensitive path at any moment.

6. Should you be afraid of dark matter?

Which is the most improved vacation opportunity for American dollars?

Sam asks:

Given all the recent global currency changes, and other turmoil, what is the best vacation destination for American’s who earn dollars.

Is it possible that I/others can go somewhere previously unaffordable because of the changes?

The dollar is much stronger in many parts of the world these days.  But the currency of Ukraine has taken an especially steep dive as of late.  It’s down about 17% in the last two weeks and that is mostly for geopolitical reasons, not hyperinflation.  So go quickly, and avoid the East!  (Whoops!  Kharkiv too…)  I hear Kiev is lovely in February.

Given government shenanigans, it is hard to get a read on the true price level and real exchange rate in Argentina, but the country has offered incredible bargains during crises in times past, and our winter is their summer.  Brazil has become much cheaper, relative to the past, but it still feels more expensive than traveling in the U.S., for the most part.  But if you are convinced you must go there, try now.  Tokyo is much cheaper than people think, but that has been the case for quite a while.

In my opinion most of the eurozone is at about PPP right now for Americans, Berlin has the best bargains, maybe Paris the worst.  Spain and Portugal to me seem to have had a lot of unreported deflation.  Just say nein to die Schweiz, they let Scott Sumner down and now you must pay for that.

Mexico remains a tremendous bargain, with a rate of about fifteen pesos to one dollar.  The best food in Mexico only costs about $2.50 a meal to begin with, now it is cheaper yet.  Most of the country is quite safe, in Yucatan the murder rate is about as low as in Finland.

The Sacred Introvert Retreat Tour markets in everything

The first Sacred Introvert Retreat Tour will take place this coming May, led by founder Lisa Avebury. Over ten days, participants will visit Glastonbury and other sites in south east England. Travellers will each have their own room and every other day will be a ‘local’ day, when visitors can rest and recharge in the peaceful surroundings of Glastonbury Abbey Retreat. The tour includes visits to mystical, historical sights such as the stone circle and the Chalice Well — where the Holy Grail is supposedly hidden. There are relaxed day trips to medieval churches and roman baths, optional yoga sessions and evening activities such as torchlit walks and bonfires.

Lisa Avebury, a self-proclaimed introvert, founded the retreat company to give quieter individuals a group travel option which catered to their needs, where silences are comfortable and socializing is optional, not mandatory. The trips costs USD 3,795 excluding flights and Avebury hopes it will be the first of many.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

*Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics*

That is the new and forthcoming book from Richard H. Thaler, due out in May.  It is excellent and fascinating, and yes even if you have read all of the other popular books on behavioral economics you should read this one too.

The title is good but I find the subtitle even more alluring.  For me the very best parts of the book are about Thaler’s career as an economist.  Indeed much of the book traces the development of behavioral economics through a biographical lens.  Here is one excerpt:

…my thesis advisor, Sherwin Rosen, gave the following as an assessment of my career as a graduate student: “We did not expect much of him.”


I spent a fair amount of time staring at the List and adding new items, but I did not know what to do with it.  “Dumb stuff people do” is not a satisfactory title for an academic paper.

Other figures of note make cameo appearances in the book, including Cass Sunstein and John Lott.

Articles and tweets about Amartya Sen which I do not really understand

Here is one account:

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, today withdrew his candidature for a second term as Nalanda University chancellor. He blamed this on the Government’s delay in approving his candidature. He also alleged that the Government is using its political might to “interfere in academic matters“. He was helped by fellow “liberals” on Twitter, in playing the victim of political vendetta.

Here is Sen’s full letter of protest.  Here is the matter trending on Twitter.  Many of the opinions expressed are rather strong.

The Rise of Opaque Intelligence

Many years ago I had a job picking up and delivering packages in Toronto. Once the boss told me to deliver package A then C then B when A and B were closer together and delivering ACB would lengthen the trip. I delivered ABC and when the boss found out he wasn’t happy because C needed their package a lot sooner than B and distance wasn’t the only variable to be optimized. I recall (probably inaccurately) the boss yelling:

Listen college boy, I’m not paying you to think. I’m paying you to do what I tell you to do.

It isn’t easy suppressing my judgment in favor of someone else’s judgment even if the other person has better judgment (ask my wife) but once it was explained to me I at least understood why my boss’s judgment made sense. More and more, however, we are being asked to suppress our judgment in favor of that of an artificial intelligence, a theme in Tyler’s Average is Over. As Tyler notes notes:

…there will be Luddites of a sort. “Here are all these new devices telling me what to do—but screw them; I’m a human being! I’m still going to buy bread every week and throw two-thirds of it out all the time.” It will be alienating in some ways. We won’t feel that comfortable with it. We’ll get a lot of better results, but it won’t feel like utopia.

I put this slightly differently, the problem isn’t artificial intelligence but opaque intelligence. Algorithms have now become so sophisticated that we human’s can’t really understand why they are telling us what they are telling us. The WSJ writes about driver’s using UPS’s super algorithm, Orion, to plan their delivery route:

Driver reaction to Orion is mixed. The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

One driver, who declined to speak for attribution, said he has been on Orion since mid-2014 and dislikes it, because it strikes him as illogical.

Human drivers think Orion is illogical because they can’t grok Orion’s super-logic. Perhaps any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.

Hat tip: Robin Hanson for discussion.

Oceanic average is over

The animals in the ocean have been getting bigger, on average, since the Cambrian period – and not by chance.

That is the finding of a huge new survey of marine life past and present, published in the journal Science.

It describes a pattern of increasing body size that cannot be explained by random “drift”, but suggests bigger animals generally fare better at sea.

In the past 542 million years, the average size of a marine animal has gone up by a factor of 150.

It appears that the explosion of different life forms near the start of that time window eventually skewed decisively towards bulkier animals.

Today’s tiniest sea critter is less than 10 times smaller than its Cambrian counterpart, measured in terms of volume; both are minuscule crustaceans. But at the other end of the scale, the mighty blue whale is more than 100,000 times the size of the largest animal the Cambrian could offer: another crustacean with a clam-like, hinged shell.

There is more here, and here is Wikipedia on Cope’s Rule.  Here is one possible explanation.  Does the Rule apply to dinosaurs?  I wonder if the risk-adjusted returns to species size also are going up.