Saturday, July 18, 2009

What's in a name?

Bill Bonus here:

How I imagine heaven

The Culture that is Germany IV

From Reuters:

"German Police had to rescue a 20-year-old man from a train station suitcase locker after he shut himself in for fun and began to suffocate.

After a night out drinking with friends, squeezing into the locker had seemed like an amusing idea to the man, police in the southwestern city of Ludwigshafen said Friday.

But the laughter faded when he started to run out of oxygen and his companions couldn't open the locker. Police broke open the door and dragged the groggy man to safety."

I guess this just points out the fabulous quality of German public lockers: totally airtight!!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Paul Wolfowitz: right on the money, just like always

Try comparing his editorial in today's WSJ here with the facts on the ground today here.

Inductive Bias is Redundant

This exchange, on PSJR, caused me to shoot coffee out my nose.

Dork 1. Apologies to the quants if this is a naive question, but as someone just coming to quantitative methods I was wondering if there is anyone currently using machine learning algorithms to study political data?

Yes, I realize machine learning is going to be over my head by several decades, but I am excited about anything that promises to help manage inductive bias.

Dork 2. Define "inductive bias". How is it different from "bias"?

Comic Genius Quant Type 1.
Define "inductive bias". How is it different from "inductive"?

Wien--Three Nights in the Lights

So...heading over to Wien, to visit with GameBill and enjoy the city. GameBill had suggested that I take the train (it's true you can get a ticket for 39 euro each way, if you get a ticket early. But that seems to mean "two years in advance.")

But Air Berlin has direct flights, Nuremberg -- Vienna, 90 euro, compared to 72 euro for the train. So, I broke my own rule (no planes while I'm in Europe, except going or coming) and got a plane ticket.

I am looking forward to it. Three nights, and no particular plans, except that GameBill and I have to work on our paper for APSA.

UPDATE: Looking at some touristy websites, I found the "Wine Tasting Bike Tour." Does anyone see a possible problem with that? As Lynyrd Skynyrd put it, "Oak tree, you are in my way." Still, tempting.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Oklahoma where the slurs come whistling out the Senator

Sorry for the commercial at the beginning but this is a good 'un!

Hat tip to Norman (who lives in Norman).

Confirm her

No one has come out of the Sotomayor hearing looking like anything but an idiot.

With the exception of Ms. Sotomayor, whom I like more and more, personally. I don't think we agree on much. But she is replacing that doofus David Souter, and I think she has a 25% higher IQ than he did, maybe more (she is surely a lot smarter than I am). And she is no more liberal than Souter, so no change in balance on the court. And she appears to feel obliged to give actual reasons, based on the law.

So, I say, confirm her.

This made me laugh.

But this time it's different??

native americans

Walking Through the Drive-Through at Naugles

All right, KPC fans, who is this fine fellow? He is a senior marketing manager at Avaya.

And he's married, I believe, to Risa P. Gorelick, at Ramapo College.

Finally, as the title suggests, this now-respectable gent is rather famous for insisting on walking through the drive-through line at Naugles, even on nights with heavy snow and wind. See, Naugles closed the main part of the building about 11 pm, but was open LATE at the drive-through. (And also early. It never closed). Just picture it: Snowing, dark, 2:45 am. Lots of cars in line. Car, car, car, guy standing "in line", car, car... Guy inside, running drive-through hears a voice order, thinks nothing of it. "Pull ahead please." Then, walking out of the night, dripping: the guy pictured above. (Except he had shoulder length curly hair then, and a big mustache.) No car, just a heavy coat. Pays for food, and strides into the blackness.

One of my favorite memories of Naugles: If you ordered the nachos, and a Dr. Pepper, the front person would yell back to the kitchen: "Macho Nacho, and a Doctor!" Here is (a picture of) an actual Naugles hat, worn by inmates: We made up a menu item, and tried to order it once, just to see what would happen: "Ort Egg on a Stick." The cashier did not see the humor in this request. (Maybe because she was wearing one of those hats, above). (To be fair, this was Angus's idea, through and through. I just giggled.)

Dick Naugle had two great ideas. One was the motto, which was printed on the napkins. I believe it went like this: "Dick Naugle says: Serve food fast. Keep place clean. Keep customer satisfied." We would sometimes debate if this was a badly failed attempt at a haiku. I still think it was.

The other idea was non-exclusive franchises. Another Naugles might open next door to yours. As was documented here, that turns out to be a bad idea, in terms of selling franchises.

Actually, Dick Naugle had one other idea: commercials many people found flagrantly racist. This is the only example I can find, and it's pretty tame.

Naugles was merged back with Del Taco in 1988. Naugles: RIP.

(A credit for the YouTube ad)

New Anti-Terrorist Weapon: Facebook. And IE 5.1. Oh, and PEANUT BUTTER. Check Your Closets

"[AUDIENCE QUESTION:] Can you please let the staff use an alternative web browser called Firefox? I just - (applause) - I just moved to the State Department from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and was surprised that State doesn't use this browser. It was approved for the entire intelligence community, so I don't understand why State can't use it. It's a much safer program. Thank you. (Applause.)

[SECRETARY CLINTON:] Well, apparently, there's a lot of support for this suggestion. (Laughter.) I don't know the answer. Pat, do you know the answer? (Laughter.)

[UNDER SECRETARY KENNEDY:] The answer is at the moment, it's an expense question.
We can --

[AUDIENCE MEMBER:] It's free. (Laughter.)"

[State Department town hall, July 10]

(Nod to Kevin L)

UPDATE: The rest of the conversation, reported in the UK....

"Nothing is free," Kennedy responded. "It’s a question of the resources to manage multiple systems. It is something we’re looking at...It has to be administered. The patches have to be loaded. It may seem small, but when you’re running a worldwide operation and trying to push, as the Secretary rightly said, out FOBs [for remote log-ins] and other devices, you’re caught in the terrible bind of triage of trying to get the most out that you can, but knowing you can’t do everything at once."

Clinton then told her staff to have a look through their closets. "The more money we can save on stuff that is not cutting edge, the more resources we’ll have to shift to do things that will give us more tools," she said.

"[That reminds] me of what I occasionally sometimes do, which I call shopping in my closet, which means opening doors and seeing what I actually already have, which I really suggest to everybody, because it’s quite enlightening. And so when you go to the store and you buy, let’s say, peanut butter and you don’t realize you’ve got two jars already at the back of the shelf – I mean, that sounds simplistic, but help us save money on stuff that we shouldn’t be wasting money on, and give us the chance to manage our resources to do more things like Firefox, okay?"

If the State Department buys less peanut butter, Clinton may even let them use Facebook. During a state department town hall meeting earlier this year, a bigwig at the US embassy in Mexico City told Clinton that the social networking site is a great way to prevent solipsistic stupid people from entering the country.

"Facebook, MySpace, and other web 2.0 social networking technologies will significantly enhance the Department’s diplomacy efforts and business goals," he said. "For example, an astute consular officer in Hermosillo recently used Facebook to determine a visa applicant’s ineligibility based on information contained on the applicant’s Facebook page, proving its value as an anti-fraud tool."

And Clinton seemed to like the idea. "We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to be smarter about using technology. So I think that’s a great example, the Facebook example. And you know, we might want to follow up on that example, checking out Facebook. For everybody who is applying for a visa, you just should know that the State Department is on the watch here for Facebook."

Interview on Health Care

Did an "interview" with old friend, student, and colleague Don Taylor. He posted it on his (relatively) new blog, FREEFORALL (that's a health care joke, get it, Free For All?). Anyway, here is the interview....

An excerpt:

Question 1. What is the biggest problem facing the U.S. health care system?

Sharply rising costs. Two ways to "solve" the costs problem: (a) give everyone insurance, so that they are insulated from cost increases. (b) reduce cost increases, and find ways to make basic health care cheaper.

(a) is the most talked about option, but it is a bad idea. Someone (the taxpayer) still pays for insurance, so we are not really protected from cost increases. The French economist, Frederic Bastiat, said that the state is the fiction that each of us should be supported by all of us. It may be that universal coverage for serious illness would protect people, but "free" health care is too expensive, unless we get a handle on costs.

Option (b) is much better, but harder, because medical lobbies and interest groups will fight it. The problem is that we do not teach, or reward, preventive action by citizens or basic primary care by physicians. NC has a big shortage in primary care, at every level.

Put it this way: I have auto insurance. But it does NOT pay for oil changes. If I don't do the oil changes, then the car will decline in value and break down. Nobody else has to pay for my bad decisions, and insurance won't cover the new engine if I ruined the old one by running without oil or maintenance.

Why should other people have to pay for the fact that I don't exercise, that I smoke, and that I eat a bad diet? "Free" insurance protects me against my own choices.

The answer is to lift restrictions on primary practice by Physicians Assistants and Nurse Practitioners. I'm not saying they should do annual check ups; we need docters, with broad training and experience, for that. But for many complaints, and for advice on diet and exercise, and smoking, even a simple computer based expert system can do a fine job. If I have a minor infection in my finger, or need my blood pressure checked, or want to know about the tingling in my diabetic toes, then I should be able to show up an office, without an appointment, and pay no more than $30 for the visit.

We can do this with oil changes, and it works fine! Why not with basic office visits? Right now, people delay going to primary care, or can't get an appointment. Then they have a REAL infection, or a stroke, or they have to have gangrenous toes removed at the emergency room.

Legalize health care. Allow PAs to practice basic primary care. And reduce the costs and hassle of going to the doctor. There is no reason it should be harder, or more expensive, than an oil change.


UPDATE: Don had this interesting piece recently, in the N&O. It is an interesting question, though I would turn it around. He asks, "Why not tax health care payments?" I ask, "Why not eliminate taxes on everything?" But we agree that the strange disparity should be ended.

Economics of Scalping

I have fooled around a little in print, and on podcast, with ticket re-selling.

So, the Bishop sends a link to this site, which I had not seen before. Very interesting, and good reading.

And, the Bishop notes, "There are some good posts on how to buy from scalpers. It made me feel OK about having paid $30 for $60 face value tickets to Cubs/Cards game last Friday. The game was in the 4th inning by the time I got there from the airport and I missed Albert's home run. I did see them walk him with the bases loaded..."

Preach, Bishop, preach!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Interesting CS Monitor Article

Terrific article in the Christian Science Monitor.

The reactions certainly are interesting, when questions get asked.

Duke did a forum on the question, some years ago. And, I am proud to say that Duke is by FAR the best place I have ever been in terms of openness to other points of view.

I'm not saying people won't argue. But there is a real commitment to diversity, and I credit our provost for that, I have to admit. He is a fine fellow. Personally quite liberal, but actually committed to real diversity.

(Nod to JB for the article reference)

Thomas Schelling speaks

on Waxman-Markey and the implications of climate change for rich and poor countries.

1. On Waxman-Markey:

"my only objection to Waxman-Markey is that it's such a hodgepodge, with all kinds of escape valves. And I don't think it's specific enough on what the cap will be from year to year to year. And also, it's 1,200 pages. And 1,200 pages implies that it's an awfully complicated hodgepodge.

If you were putting a cap on oil at the wellhead -- and a cap on coal at the minehead, a cap on gas at the wellhead, and on oil and gas at the port of importation -- so that it was essentially a cap on the fossil fuels, rather than trying to put a cap on electricity in the middle west versus electricity in the South. Or a cap on various manufacturing industries. Or a cap on refineries, even. That seems to me a not very serious way to tackle the problem where it originates. And my actual feeling is that the best you can hope for with this Waxman-Markey bill is that it'll take a few years to discover that it's a huge nuisance of the problem, and they ought to find a way to simplify it. And the way to simplify it is to put the cap on the fossil fuels, not on different industries."

2. On climate change's effect on the rich vs. the poor:

"If I were to come clean to the American public I would say that, except for a very low probability of a very bad result -- which is the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would put Washington DC under water -- we are probably going to outgrow any vulnerability we have to climate change. And in case we'll be able to afford to buy food or import it is necessary. You know, very little of the US economy is susceptible to climate. All of agriculture is less than 3% of our gross product. Forestry may be endangered. Fisheries may be endangered. But recreation might actually benefit!

So if we can double our GDP in the next 70 or 80 years, even if we lose some of our GDP from climate change -- even if we lose 10% of our GDP from climate change -- we're still ahead so much that the effect of climate change wouldn't be noticed. But it would be pretty disastrous in a lot of the less developed parts of the world. And that's why I think it's crucially important not to demand anything of China, India and so forth that will significantly impede their economic progress".

Hat tip to Mark Thoma!

Try Harder, and Think

A thoughtful little piece from Nick T.

My Second Career as a Weather Forecaster: Not Working Out

I had scheduled a Bastille Day celebration, a mid-summer American style bbq to share the celebration of our French bretheren and sisteren. Had obtained, with help from the intrepid Hajo, a huge quantity of Hähnchenschenkel, weiners, kartoffelsalat, and a 30 liter wooden keg of Steinbach-Bräu (that was with the help of the lovely Eva, I should note, a sturdy lass when it comes to helping out with the beer and mugs.)

And I had reserved, with the help of Frau Uhlich, a terrific wide grassy spot, right on campus, and nice wooden tables and a fine large grille. (Okay, Martin was the brains behind all this, but I did what he told me, so I deserve SOME credit).

Then, Monday morgen, I look at many different weather forecasts. Rain. Rain all day. Two centimeters or more of rain, getting heavier throughout the day.

And so I postponed everything. Had to pick up the chicken thighs, but some extra marination and then freezing won't hurt them. Hadn't even bought the wassermelon or mais am kolben yet, because I wanted them to be fresh. And the hot dogs and potato salad will keep. But the beer, the location, the tables, the grille, the help, and all the guests....have to reschedule for the following week. A pretty big hassle, since everyone is trying very hard to help me, and now they are having to rework a pretty big set of things. (I can just imagine the conversations: "Wow, Munger is pretty high maintenance, isn't he?" "Um...yeah, he is. A nut.")

Tuesday morning dawns. Cold. Rainy. Blustery. I am vindicated. starts to clear up. Then, a little more rain, but big patches of blue in the sky.

By 4 pm, bright blue sunshiny sky, with puffy little clouds, just to mock me. By 6:30 pm, the time the party would have started if somebody we know hadn't panicked... a cool, clear evening, with the light clean smell that comes after (AFTER) the rain stops completely and definitively.

Honestly, I have been in Germany now for three months. At the time of the scheduled party, and for the next four hours, this was one of the three or four nicest evenings the WHOLE TIME I HAVE BEEN HERE.

I am afraid that Martin is going to pull something in his neck. Every time I see him, he is making a sincere effort not to giggle. Not that he actaully cares about my feelings. It is just that it is not necessary to say anything.

I HATE German weather.

UPDATE: A thunderstorm came through about 2 am last night. Since, it has been cold and rainy. Right now: 63F and raining pretty hard.

The only time in the last 36 hours that has not been cold and rainy was the six hour window when I had scheduled my party. In that six hours, it was beautiful.

UPDATE II: I'm not just paranoid. People have been telling that this summer is unusual. But wait: The average high in June in Erlangen is 22 C (72 F), and the low is 11 (52). The month of June averages a total of 10+ rain days. The average for July is slightly (1.5 degrees C) warmer, but with 12 rainy days. In short, this is not unusual. There just isn't any summer here. Curse you, Red Baron.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who you got?

Tonight I turned off all the lights in the living room and was listening to Krishna Das in a peaceful reverie (while Mrs. A  was Wii boxing upstairs). Just me, Krishna, and the glow of my tube amp, when from nowhere it occurred to me: now that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Desmond Dekker, Johnny Cash, and Ali Farka Toure are all recently passed on, I might be listening to the best voice living on the planet. 

Seriously, who are the other contenders? 

Van Morrison is up there, Youssou N'Dour, Bill Callahan, and maybe Kurt Wagner? Anyone else? Maybe Jamie Stewart? 

I am not talking about favorite singers or great musicians, but best voice (Probably my favorite singer who doesn't really have a great voice but can really bring spirit and emotion is John Prine).

How great is it to be able to listen to any of these voices whenever you want?

OK, 'nuff said. Back to Krishna Das!


The Culture that is Germany III

In Germany, green means go!!!

Still I can't help but wonder if they really want their business done helmets off.

Monday, July 13, 2009

No Complaining, and No Politics. Othewise, say what you want!

Ken over at Popehat tut-tutts some things that need to be tut-tutted.

Economists Make Prediction, Prediction is Correct!

How Smart Are the Smart Guys? A Unique View from Hedge Fund Stock Holdings

John Griffin & Jin Xu, Review of Financial Studies, July 2009, Pages 2531-2570

Abstract: Compared to mutual funds, hedge funds prefer smaller, opaque value securities, and have higher turnover and more active share bets. Decomposing returns into three components, we find that hedge funds are better than mutual funds at stock picking by only 1.32% per year on a value-weighted basis, and this result is insignificant on an equal-weighted basis or with price-to-sales benchmarks. Hedge funds exhibit no ability to time sectors or pick better stock styles. Surprisingly, we find only weak evidence of differential ability between hedge funds. Overall, our study raises serious questions about the perceived superior skill of hedge fund managers.


Luck versus Skill in the Cross Section of Mutual Fund Alpha Estimates

Eugene Fama & Kenneth Frenchm University of Chicago Working Paper, March 2009

Abstract: The aggregate portfolio of U.S. equity mutual funds is close to the market
portfolio, but the high costs of active management show up intact as lower returns to investors. Bootstrap simulations produce no evidence that any managers have enough skill to cover the costs they impose on investors. If we add back costs, there is some evidence of inferior and superior performance (non-zero true alpha) in the extreme tails of the cross section of mutual fund alpha estimates. The evidence for performance is, however, weak, especially for successful funds, and we cannot reject the hypothesis that no fund managers have skill that enhances expected returns.

Since both of these results are PRECISELY what economists would predict, I expect to hear a little credit from you nay-sayers.

What I don't understand is why universities wasted so much money on high-priced investment advisers. Hell, I could have lost 20% or more of Duke's endowment, and done it for HALF the cost.

Fact is, Ms. Mungowitz and I bailed out of the stock market for our 401k money in August of 2007. Now, that was not the peak, and for a while I felt silly. But converting all of our stocks into cash and short term gov bonds certainly "made" us a lot of cash, from November 2008 through February 2009. And I didn't charge us any fees at ALL.

Called Strikes On Checked Swings

What is going on with baseball umps?

They are calling strikes on checked swings. I don't mean checked swings that went around. I mean a twitch, not even close to a real strike.

Both the home plate umps, and the 1st/3rd umps, are calling strikes that are clearly balls. It must be a policy.

I am not complaining in a partisan way; the Cards seem to benefit as often as they are harmed. What I mean is, the umps are calling it both ways.

But those are not strikes. What's happening here?

I am not the only one who has noticed, I should point out. Here, and here. Oh, and here.

Another example, perhaps the clearest I have found:

Umpire Jim Wolf who called the balls and strikes in yesterdays game for the Mets pitchers, and just the strikes for the Yankees’ A.J. Burnett, should be investigated for betting on baseball. Only someone who had money on the Yankees would have given Burnett those strike calls. The first and third base coaches must have been in on the fix too, as the checked swing strikes weren’t even close.

Sure, that guy is a Mets fan, and so not really to be trusted. But....c'mon.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Shaq attack

An embellished account of Shaq's meet up with Cav coach Mike Brown here.

Smarter Nations are More Liberal

IQ and the Values of Nations

Satoshi Kanazawa, Journal of Biosocial Science, July 2009, Pages 537-556

Abstract: The origin of values and preferences is an unresolved theoretical question in behavioural and social sciences. The Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, derived from the Savanna Principle and a theory of the evolution of general intelligence, suggests that more intelligent individuals may be more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel values and preferences (such as liberalism and atheism and, for men, sexual exclusivity) than less intelligent individuals, but that general intelligence may have no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar values. Macro-level analyses show that nations with higher average intelligence are more liberal (have greater highest marginal individual tax rate and, as a result, lower income inequality), less religious (a smaller proportion of the population believes in God or considers themselves religious) and more monogamous. The average intelligence of a population appears to be the strongest predictor of its level of liberalism, atheism and monogamy.

A blog post on the journal article..... Excerpt: Kanazawa uses a simple thought experiment to illustrate the idea that adaptations are “designed for and adapted to the conditions of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, not necessarily to the current environment.” In other words, our very ancient ancestors’ environment.

Now, I am a fan of evolutionary biology. Evolutionary psychology is more speculative, but okay, can be interesting. But the kind of "just so" story being concocted here is just silly nonsense.

From the comments on that blog post: "It should also be noted that the Journal of Biosocial Sciences has a reputation for publishing offensive and poorly evidenced papers that make undeservedly big splashes."

Look, Dr. Kanazawa has happened upon a purely cross-sectional correlation, one that is easily explained. The more money the state spends on indoctrinating people in state schools, the more those same people favor state schools. Yes, there is a by-product, in that people with more schooling also perform better on IQ tests. But Dr. Kanazawa has uncovered either a wholly spurious correlation, or else one where the causation is actually reversed. It is not true that smart nations are more liberal. What is true is that liberal nations spend more taxpayer money on public education. Whether that is a good thing or not is debatable, of course. But it has nothing to do with the magic faeries that Dr. Kanazawa seems to see dancing in the air around him.

(A big happy nod to Kevin L. Bless you, lad. This is pure gold)

UPDATE: This paper, forthcoming in INTELLIGENCE, is much more carefully done, and is at least worth considering, in terms of its conclusions and results--Charlie Reeve, "Expanding the g-nexus: Further evidence regarding the relations among national IQ, religiosity and national health outcomes," Intelligence, forthcoming

Some Important Verbs

Angus and I have been having a small debate, about two verbs. But with help from Martin K., I have come up with the key distinction.

Angus claims (and rightly) that the verb "to Jess" means to make certain social commitments, perhaps only implicitly but still clearly, and then just completely blow them off. For example, if you are skiing with several people, and all make plans for going to dinner after the next run. Then one or two of the group see the route you are taking down, and with nothing more than a "I'm not going that way" take off down a much longer run, served by a different lift line. You have been "Jessed" (named after the master Jesser, Jess Yawitz. (A junior Jess master is Tom Gilligan, coming up fast through the rankings, for Jessing promised golf outings).

"To Munger" is, I would claim, somewhat different. I do have the habit of going to a party, and then when it is time to go I just leave. Not quite sneak out, but...okay, I sneak out. I don't like the whole big scene of taking leave, small talk, interrupting the conversation of other people just so I can go home. This is NOT Jessing, which involves the breaking of the promise for further social interaction. Anyway, Martin Kypta came up with the perfect short definition of Mungering: "To Munger is to waive goodbye." I wish I had thought of that.

UPDATE: Angus is going to argue that "To Munger" has at least two archaic meanings. The first is to use one's large (and possibly smelly) body to wind around plates or boxes of supposedly shared food items, thereby claiming them, much as a dog might. (And, yes, this did really happen, absolutely.)

The second is to make large (in fact, grandiose) claims about athletic skills and mastery of sports. It later turns out the actual talent level is much, MUCH less, and then the Mungerer will make some even MORE preposterous excuse. The excuse simply adds to the comedy material of John Jarosz, who retells the story four or five times each day for a month.

While I do honor Angus' position as the keeper of the flame of tradition, I think these two archaic meanings are no longer in common usage.