Monday, October 26, 2009

Gross Pointe Blank is a great movie

So I'm watching this again, and I can't believe I ever thought it was merely OK. The skill with which it deftly weaves together irreverent humor, pathos, and even wisdom has rarely been equaled in turn-of-the-century film; maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes close, although the latter ultimately takes itself so seriously that it loses some of its dexterity.

A partial list of virtues of GPB:

  • The scene where Martin Blank (John Cusack) revisits his old home address to the tune of Guns 'n Roses' Live and Let Die never ceases to be hilarious.
  • The awkward tension between Martin and Debi (Minnie Driver) hits this perfect compound of emotional veracity and factual implausibility. No meet-cutes or other boilerplate infrastructure of romantic comedy here; we just get an international hit man coming home to chase down an old ex-girlfriend. Boom, there it is. Deal with it. And yet it feels more real than any number of superficially more "realist" entries in the genre.
  • Dan Aykroyd. Hit man. And somehow, against all odds, funny, for maybe the last time ever.
  • The degree of care evident in virtually every line of the script is astonishing. The dialogue is as dense and snappy as the best Coen brothers films. Even throwaway lines are frequently exceptional. (Waitress at diner: "...there's Gatsby's 'West Egg' Omelette..."; you might not even notice the line, yet observe how exactly this item, offered by the waitress at Martin's Midwestern (!) hometown diner, echoes the broader themes of the movie. Rather than ordering this, Martin opts for an omelette without filling.)
  • Two years before The Sopranos started turning the "emotionally disturbed criminal in a shrink's office" into a cliché, we get a criminal-in-a-shrink's-office setup that's funnier and more plausible than basically anything in The Sopranos' entire run, and also doesn't overstay its welcome.

I could go on and on, but basically, you should just go watch this movie again, with attention.

(However, I will admit that Debi's character, as written, veers close to being the mere projection of Martin's psychological needs, rather than a character in her own right. This is perhaps redeemed by Driver's performance.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

J. Holbo on hate crimes

At CT, J. Holbo kicks off a discussion of the moral and legal justifications for hate crimes legislation, and how calling it "thought crime" is basically ridiculous. Worth reading because (a) Holbo is uncharacteristically terse and (b) the comments thread's decent enough that I have little to add.

One can parse out a distinction between hate crimes legislation and other uses of mens rea in criminal law but, as the thread illustrates, it's an exceedingly fine line, and a much subtler one than is commonly supposed by the rhetoric of hate crimes legislation opponents. It's pretty clear, once you think this through, that the debate over hate crimes legislation is more "haggling over price" than some bright shining line of moral principle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Online dating and race at OKCupid

This recent post on the OKCupid blog has been widely linked, but since I covered this previously, at some length (also related), I feel obligated to post it.

If you have any interest in this subject, you'll no doubt read the whole thing, but if you need any further suasion, here are the key figures. Reply rates by race when men send messages...

...and reply rates by race when women send messages...

Read it and weep. (Or rejoice, I suppose, if you're in the favored classes and you guiltlessly enjoy racial privilege.)

BTW yes, they controlled for algorithmic match rate, which is essentially flat across all race/gender combinations (see the "Match % by Race" figure in the original post).

As usual, I find the result itself sad — I think this goes far beyond a moderate amount of understandable homophily (look at the diagonals!) — but what I find much more sad is the degree of self-deception that people engage in when discussing these results. Unfairness is annoying; deception about unfairness really brings on the facepalm.

See, for example, the 459-comment Metafilter thread, where about half the educated, literate, liberal MeFi crowd doesn't seem to get the following simple proposition: although diversity of aesthetic preferences, including preference for racially marked features, may be a simple personal choice, systematic statistical skew in aesthetic preferences across a large population strongly indicates socialization to racially biased standards of attractiveness.

Note, by the way, that racial preferences don't mean merely visual discrimination. The degree of racial discrimination is considerably stronger and more widespread for women than men, even though (as folk wisdom has it) women are less visually focused than men. (Personally, I think folk wisdom overstates this sex difference, but I do think it's real.) I think this implies that part of the racial discrimination effect — possibly even the dominant part — is due to people making assumptions about personality or character based on race, rather than preference for a certain physical appearance alone. Which is even more damning.

Standard caveats w.r.t. all such social science analyses apply blah blah blah. On the other hand, the fact that this result essentially replicates, at finer granularity, the results of the Hitsch et al. study I blogged previously, as well as anecdotal evidence gathered from friends and acquaintances, does not incline me to skepticism.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Coase and Pareto optimality illustrated

The Coase Theorem states that absent transaction costs, a Pareto efficient outcome will be arrived at regardless of the assignment of rights in an economic transaction. This theorem and its implications are a common source of confusion, which I attribute to the relatively dry examples typically used to illustrate the theorem --- commercial property easements, etc. Here is a more vivid illustration, which may clarify matters.

Suppose I want to shoot you in the face. With a gun. Suppose I value this experience at X dollars. Suppose, also, that you value your face at Y dollars. The Coase theorem predicts that both the outcome and the global welfare thereof will be the same regardless of whether

  1. I have the legal right to shoot you in the face.
  2. You have the legal right not to be shot in the face.

You can prove this by breaking it down into cases:

  1. Suppose Y > X; that is, you value your face more than I value shooting you in the face. Then consider the two possible assignments of rights:
    1. Suppose I have the right to shoot you in the face. Then you will pay me $X plus a penny not to shoot you in the face. Your welfare will be $Y - ($X plus a penny), and my welfare will be $X plus a penny. The total welfare will then be $Y - ($X plus a penny) + ($X plus a penny), or $Y.
    2. Suppose you have the right not to be shot in the face. Because Y > X, I will not pay you enough to let me shoot you in the face. You will have your face, which is worth $Y. I will have nothing. The total welfare between the two of us is then $Y.
    Notice that in both cases, you do not get shot in the face, and the total welfare is $Y.
  2. Suppose, on the other hand, that Y < X; that is, I want to shoot you in the face more than you value not being shot. Now consider the two subcases:
    1. Suppose I have the right to shoot you in the face. You will not be willing to pay me $X, because you only value your face at $Y. I will shoot you in the face. Your welfare will be -Y dollars. My welfare will be X dollars. In this case, the total welfare is $X - $Y.
    2. Suppose you have the right not to be shot in the face. Because Y < X, I will pay you $Y plus a penny to let me shoot you in the face. Your net welfare will be a penny, because you got shot in the face, but got paid $Y plus a penny. My welfare will be X minus Y dollars plus a penny. The total welfare between the two of us is $X - $Y, plus a penny minus a penny, which is $X - $Y.
    Notice that in both cases, you get shot in the face, and the total welfare is $X - $Y.

So, the outcomes are the same, and the total welfare is the same. Clearly, it does not matter whom we assign the rights to, right?

Right. Back here on Earth, any thinking person will be prompted to make a few observations.

First, although total welfare is the same, the balance of welfare may be dramatically different. Consider the difference between A.1 and A.2: if I have the right to shoot you in the face, you have to pay me not to; but if I do not, then you have to do nothing and you get to keep all your money. So the Coase Theorem says nothing whatsoever about distributional justice.

Second, you may observe that I have made an unwarranted assumption that the person being paid off in A.1 and B.2 will accept a mere penny extra to change his/her behavior. In fact, the person being paid off might observe that the welfare surplus (the difference between $X and $Y) can be larger than a penny, and bargain for a larger fraction of that surplus. Logically, the "buyer" in each case ought to be willing to pay the maximum price minus a penny. For example, if I value shooting you in the face at $X, I ought to be willing to pay $X minus a penny for the privilege of shooting you; in fact, every payment between $X minus a penny and $Y plus a penny is Pareto optimal and the Coase Theorem has nothing to say about how much money will actually get transferred. In practice, of course, this would be determined by social norms, unequal distribution of prior capital, and other "social" stuff that economists usually prefer to ignore the existence of.

Third, we have made no mention of "human" or "natural" rights. And indeed the Coase Theorem is a completely amoral observation about (an idealized model) of bargaining. I hope you believe it would be monstrous for society to give me the right to shoot you in the face, with your only recourse being to pay me off not to do it. The Coase Theorem tells us that both assignments are "efficient" (Pareto optimal). But of course there's a world of difference between the two.

So basically, the Coase Theorem is a cool little mathematical widget that, by itself, offers almost no guidance in real world policy questions. In combination with other concepts, it's no doubt a useful widget for economists. But when it appears unadorned in laypersons' rhetoric, its most common purpose, as far as I can tell, is to obscure fundamentally normative disagreements about distributional justice, social inequality, and moral principle. Mathematical concepts like Pareto optimality are objective --- they assume no particular moral values or social context --- but neither does a gun, and yet when somebody points a gun at your face there's no mistaking the malign intention.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Why are so many IT workers climate change denialists?

Maybe it's just my imagination, but it seems that climate change denialism is even more common among programmer and sysadmin types than among engineers and applied scientists more generally. Without diving into climate science*, here are a few brief hypotheses.

  • Computers teach you to think in logic. Climate change modeling relies on the synthesis of a large number of statistical correlations rather than crisp rules of inference. Although logic and statistics are related (probability strictly generalizes logic, in a precise mathematical sense), a mind too narrowly conditioned to thinking in syllogisms may find it hard to reason statistically.
  • Computing workers spend a lot of time on the Internet, and are disproportionately likely to be white, male, and libertarian. Climate change denialism is seen as not only respectable but intellectually heroic by (a significant faction of) the tribe of white, male, libertarian Internet users. (Arguably this merely begs the question, however, as the direction of causality may go the other way.)
  • Computing workers are more socially isolated than people belonging to the same socioeconomic class. Because they spend less time around an intelligent, well-educated peer group, they are less socialized to defer to the knowledge of others.
  • Computing workers spend all their time around intricate machines which (a) they understand better than the general public, and (b) the general public has become heavily reliant upon. This breeds arrogance, and arrogance breeds disrespect for expertise in general. Disrespect for climatologists is simply a special case of this phenomenon. This, however, is true of almost any profession involving specialized knowledge, from plumbing to physical therapy to nursing; so this factor might not prove decisive, except for the next bullet...
  • Computing workers are, on average, more "autistic" and less "empathetic" on the autism/empathy spectrum. That is, they are unusually incompetent at modeling the mental and emotional states of other people. As a result, they fail to place themselves in the shoes of professional climatologists. That is, they do not imagine that most professional climatologists have worked hard to become experts in an esoteric and demanding (which is to say nerdy) intellectual discipline; might be driven by passion and curiosity and a desire to get it right; might along the way have been exposed to vast volumes of knowledge with which the lay observer is not familiar. In short, it is much easier to view literally thousands of scientists worldwide as a species of fools, liars, and conspirators when one assumes that they are nothing like oneself. (I strongly suspect that fewer IT workers would be climate change denialists if they realized that climate scientists are natural science geeks like them, whereas the primary beneficiaries of climate change denialism are corporate suits who were probably shoving geeks into lockers in high school.)

*About which, er, you can say whatever you like, but I'm going to listen to this guy.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cynicism about government does not help the libertarian cause

TLF has been much less interesting since Tim Lee left, and this piece by J. Harper is the sort of thing that is reducing my desire to keep the TLF feed in my Reader. I'm not going to address the ostensible main thesis of the piece, but I just want to comment on one aspect that strikes me as dramatically misguided:

I’m a person who notices premises, and Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement”—unvarnished access to government data—”is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

First, there's an elementary error of logic here. The proposition

"change" and "pushing faith in our political system off the cliff" are in opposition

does not in any way entail that

"improving faith in the political system" is the "only thing that qualifies as change"
Political change and faith in the political system are variables in a very high-dimensional space, and the observation that they converge at the origin does not entail that every single increase in one is correlated with an increase in the other. Or in less math-metaphorical terms, even if you grant Lessig's premise, there might be a large number of changes which slightly reduce faith in our political system, or hold faith in our political system constant, and this would still not contradict Lessig's statement. (N.b. I say this as someone who thinks that "faith" in our political system is about as misguided as any other kind of faith.)

But never mind that.

The point I really want to make is that Harper seems to think that cynicism about the political system is in some way helpful to the libertarian cause. I'm not exactly a libertarian but this strikes me as completely wrong. Cynicism breeds two things: (1) apathy and (2) shameless exploitation. A population that is truly cynical about politics leads to even greater disengagement plus even greater corruption than prevails in the ordinary course of government.

Libertarians are not cynical about politics. A true cynic would adopt the essentially nihilistic stance of today's Republican Party leadership, whose political strategy is basically

  • Use the government to enrich one's political allies.
  • Sabotage any attempt to use government as an instrument to enhance the general welfare.
  • Distract people from the former two points by a systematic campaign of deceitful propaganda relating to irrelevancies.

On the contrary, principled libertarians are in fact extremely idealistic about the possibility of government being reformed in ways that either enhance the general welfare (in the case of utilitarian libertarians) or are more respectful of the libertarian conception of natural rights (in the case of natural-rights libertarians).*

In short, true cynics either become players in the game or stop playing; libertarians hate the game. And hating the game requires a certain belief in the possibility of a better game. Basically, Harper seems to be deeply confused about the distinction between procedural and substantive liberalism.

Oh, all right, I'll say a little bit about the primary thesis of the piece. I don't read TNR and I don't want to start, but my view on transparency is more or less in line with Aaron Swartz's: exposure is necessary but it's not going to change things without the development of social practices and norms which increase civic engagement.

*Of course I disagree that actually existing libertarianism does either of these things but that doesn't have anything to do with how libertarians justify their own beliefs.