Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Thursday music link, a day late

If you put Oliver Wendell Holmes ("the First Amendment does not protect the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre") and JM Keynes (describing Treasury anti-inflation policy in the 30s as "crying 'fire, fire' in Noah's flood") together, does that mean that German politicians talking about the inflationary consequences of a Greek bailout are shouting "Fire!" in a flooded theatre?

In related news, note that the main issue the ratings agencies have is the Greek pension liability, and the main component of the austerity measures will end up being a reform of the pension system. The sovereign bond market is a curious place, where "He's willing to cheat his own grandmother, that one", can be a mark of the utmost probity.


"Rhythm Killers" was a great album, although the approximately 9 million exactly similar Bill Laswell productions which followed it weren't all quite so good.
7 comments this item posted by the management 4/30/2010 01:05:00 AM

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Rampant paedophobia

Further to Phil's observations on Tory slogans, I couldn't help noticing while driving into work at silly-o-clock this morning that Commercial Road is absolutely rife with Cameron's billboards. I am presuming that they are aimed at the driving-to-Essex passing trade rather than the locals (or possibly to banker boys in the Wharf?), but it interests me that Central Office have picked two particular slogans to go nap with for the four poster sites they have within about a mile of road.

"Let's have national citizen service for 16-year olds", and "Let's bring back discipline in our schools". It is always with the fucking spanking with these people, isn't it? (I am not sure if they're actually advocating the return of corporal punishment and suspect that Strasbourg probably wouldn't let them, but "discipline in schools" is pretty clear dog whistle talk).

Do 'ordinary hard working families' really dislike their kids as much as all that? I was never a big fan of fearmongering about 'feral youths' back when it was all meant to be abstract, but these two explicitly paedophobic slogans seem even more unpleasant.
32 comments this item posted by the management 4/27/2010 09:41:00 AM

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Occam's Doctor

"Occam's Doctor" is the title of my new spec script for Dr. Who, packed off recently to BBC Wales. In it, the Doctor discovers to his horror that he can't actually travel through time at all - he is just a being with a strange tendency to make discontinuous jumps through space, arriving at each new spatial location with a brand new set of beliefs about what has recently happened to him. He only appears to be travelling through time because of the curious non-continuous narrative style in which his adventures are presented to us, full of flashbacks and flash-forwards; actually they all happen in a perfectly normal temporal order.

In the end, Professor David Lewis turns out to be a shape-shifting alien. (Update: Of course this should come as no surprise, as everyone knows that there are possible worlds in which he's been a shape-shifting alien all along.)
(Update: It's not really very spectacular, btw: all that happens is that they discover that the predicate "is Professor David Lewis" refers to David Lewis at times up to time T, and to a Sontaran thereafter. I wish I'd made it more televisual in retrospect - the new series seems to have a much bigger fx budget).
8 comments this item posted by the management 4/24/2010 04:36:00 AM

Friday, April 23, 2010

On Comments Section Meanies

If I have one piece of advice to give after years of frequenting the most troll-heavy regions of the ninternet, it's this: Never underestimate the proportion of your readership who are housebound or suffering from serious mental or physical illness. In an absolutely frightening proportion of cases, when you find yourself asking the question "Jeez, does this guy ever leave the house?", the answer would make you weep. In an absolutely frightening proportion of cases, when someone makes a comment like "god, why don't you just get a life/get a girlfriend/get a job?", they are making a suggestion that is roughly as unrealistic as ordering their enemy to sprout wings and fly. Why is the internet such a mean place? Because so many of the people writing on it are in more or less constant pain. Why do people take things so seriously on the internet? Because for so many of them, it is their only source of human contact.

Occasioned by this:

"Last October, The Philadelphia Weekly published an article by a woman who wrote of her inability to function after a car accident (She hadn’t had health insurance). Here was one comment by a woman calling herself Rux P.:

"...Get a spine!! I’ve had breast cancer, a mastectomy and chemo. with minor health coverage and survived it... Get a minnie mouse bandage and go to sleep."

Why is the Internet such a cruel playground?

Yes, Taffy, why was "Rux P" so short-tempered and unsympathetic? Perhaps "Rux P" was just having a bit of a bad day that day, what with the severe breast cancer and all.

I'm not saying that we should cut people unlimited amounts of slack - there are some rather juvenile people out there, plus even people who are really having a bad time sometimes have to be censored or shut down on simple utilitarian grounds if they're causing too much trouble. But in general, it's worth wielding the moderator's hammer with a little bit of sympathy for the fact that you're often dealing with some really very unhappy people, and that it's often better to recognise this and have a bit of common humanity rather than taking the Nurse Ratchet approach to anyone you find difficult to deal with.

I appreciate that many readers will find it strange or even hypocritical to hear such sentiments coming from this source, but I do have to point out that this blog was once a lot more popular than it is now, Crooked Timber is still a very popular blog, as was in its day, and despite the obvious pitfalls and dangers associated with my own dysfunctional personality and style (many of which are the direct result of lack of sleep, awww diddums), none of them ever had anything like the sorts of problems that sites run by the self-appointed gurus of web community moderation are beset with.
19 comments this item posted by the management 4/23/2010 04:45:00 AM

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thursday Music Link

Further very important points about the philosophy of time.

OK, yesterday's stopped clock post was a bit of a gash job, and was at least partly trolling the mathematicians. Do you want the proper Bayesian analysis? Well here it is anyway. It's clear that what I should actually have said is that

(1) for any X, your prior probability P(T=X) will be a number (0,1), usually nonzero as you are aware that your watch might not be right.

(2) P(T=X|a stopped clock says T=X) = P(a stopped clock says T=X|T=X)*P(T=X) divided by P(a stopped clock says T=X).

(3) but for any Y, P (a stopped clock says T=X|T=Y) = P (a stopped clock says T=X). Otherwise it isn't stopped.

(4) Substitute Y=X into 2, and cancel P(a stopped clock says T=X|T=X)/P(a stopped clock says T=X) = 1

(5) P(T=X|a stopped clock says T=X) = P (T=X)

ie, for any X, seeing a stopped clock does not cause you to change your estimate of P(T=X). QED.

So far so good, but that's basically because we've been talking about P(T=X), considered as a function of X. If someone asks you the time, then you can't answer in the form of a function over the real numbers, it would take too long. You have to give a point estimate. What's your point estimate?

Well, remember, you have a watch, which tells you that the time is W=f(T) (ie, unlike a stopped clock, your watch tells you a different time depending on what time it is). It's perfectly consistent to say that for any X, P(T=X) = 0, because time is continuous (physicists - spare me), but that W is a reasonable estimator of T; you can even calculate the expected error.

And note, for any X, there may be cases such that W(T)=X, ie it is possible that there exists a stopped clock that is showing you the same time as your watch. But it's not possible that W=X, because W is a function of T and X isn't.


1) stopped clocks are always wrong wrong with probability 1 (thanks, Larry) because a stopped clock says T=X for some particular X and for any particular X, P(T=X) is probability zero.
2) stopped clocks provide no information about the time because for all X, P(T=X|stopped clock says T=X)=P(T=X) (note that the term after the equals sign refers to a probability distribution)
3) watches provide information about the time because W=f(T) is an estimator of T - ie P(T=X|W=X)≠ P(T=X)
4) however, if you read off W(T)=X as a number, P(T=X)=0, ie, in so far as they show a point estimate of the time, watches are also wrong.

5) therefore, the correct answer to "What time is it?" is "Time you got a watch".

The key thing here is that time isn't like space - a watch doesn't tell you that "the time is 10 am" in the same way in which a diagram tells you that a particular point is on a particular line, precisely because the watch changes with the time. Now this one can safely be handed over to the philosophers.

Cruisin'. After all that, I think we've earned ourselves a nice refreshing glass of jazz-rock fusion. I think the lesson of this week's episode is to use lowercase for specific values of x and uppercase for general X, or some such sensible convention.

Update: I can't believe I forgot about this important generalisation of the stopped clock theorem.


26 comments this item posted by the management 4/22/2010 05:26:00 AM

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More on the stopped clock theorem

You look at your watch and see the time is 10am. You then see a stopped clock, which shows that the time is X ≠ 10am. Using Bayes' Rule, to what do you now revise your opinion of what time it is?

It's still 10am, isn't it?


Lemma: All stopped clocks are independent of each other.


(1) Either: the conditional probability (T=X| [A stopped clock says that T=X]) = 0

(2) Or: there is some, possibly infinite, vector V of stopped clocks showing times [X1, X2 ...], such that if you saw V when your watch said 10am, then you would change your mind about the time.

The second can't be right, so the conditional probability that T=X given that a stopped clock says that T=X is zero; ie, "A stopped clock is never right" QED.

Whatcha think about that? Answer in comments.
Tangentially semi-related link
34 comments this item posted by the management 4/20/2010 05:17:00 PM

Friday, April 16, 2010

Counterinsurgency spreadsheet corner

Hmm are you sure about this lads - Spencer Ackerman and Matthew Yglesias swap numbers on COIN in Afghanistan, civilian lethality of. I excerpt the numbers bits below ...

What the U.N. has found since 2005 is that civilian casualties have been on the rise as a feckless and underresourced mission came into conflict with a resurgent and adaptive Taliban. The period of January to June 2007 recorded 684 civilian casualties; the figure during that time period rose to 818 in 2008; and 1013 from January to June 2009.

But UNAMA, beginning in its mid-2009 report, noticed that the proportion of responsibility for the civilian casualties was changing:

In the first six months of 2009, 59% of civilians were killed by AGEs [Anti-Government Elements; that is, insurgents] and 30.5% by PGF [Pro-Government Forces; that is the U.S., NATO, Afghan-government forces]. This represents a significant shift from 2007 when PGF were responsible for 41% and AGEs for 46% of civilian deaths.

I bolded the word "significant" there because it's a technical term being used loosely. In fact, 30.5% of 1013 is 309 and 41% of 684 is 280. In other words, coalition forces have been killing about 300 civilians in a six month period at a fairly consistent rate and all the variance in the percentages is in the insurgent violence. In general, don't take percentages of percentages, don't calculate variances of percentages, don't in general do any processing to your raw numbers after you've turned them into percentages, unless you're 100% sure that you know what effect this will have...

So what happened to civilian casualties when McChrystal arrived in June 2009? According to UNAMA’s January 2010 report, its most recent:

Pro-Government forces – Afghan National Security Forces and International Military (IM) forces – were responsible for 596 recorded deaths; this is 25% of the total civilian casualties recorded in 2009. This is a reduction of 28% from the total number of deaths attributed to pro-Government forces in 2008. This decrease reflects measures taken by international military forces to conduct operations in a manner that reduces the risk posed to civilians

596 in a year is as near as dammit 300 in two six month periods. No variance. Nothing changed.

Update, 8:12 a.m., April 16: Derrick Crowe points out in comments below a new USA Today story documenting ISAF backsliding on civilian casualties. ISAF troops “accidentally killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009, according to figures the International Security Assistance Force gave USA TODAY.” By McChrystal’s own reckoning, then, the system is blinking red and new measures have to be put in place

72 in three months is actually a halving of the run rate; the fact that apparently there were (309-29=) 280 civilian deaths caused by the coalition in Q2 09 after only 29 in Q1 09 shows you that the three-monthly data is just too volatile to give a signal, so I doubt that it will be setting off any red lights.

But but but ...

But the actual problem here is that it's another type 3 error. As I've remarked regularly, "civilian" and "combatant" are not categories known to medical science; no doctor ever said "Congratulations Mrs Sherzai, a big bouncing baby combatant". Somebody categorised these people, after they died, in order to compile the initial number of "civilian" casualties that all these proportions are calculated off.

And it seems to me highly unlikely that the Afghanistani people will necessarily agree with the Army's taxonomic scheme. Recall the discussion of Taliban labour contracts a year ago. There's all sorts of people who are basically farmers, but who from time to time out of poverty, nationalism or intimidation, find themselves planting a bomb or carrying a gun or otherwise involved in an attack (a very large proportion of the output of the Northern Irish media industry used to deal with the tragic dilemmae of this sort of character). When one of them gets shot, then they're definitely a combatant ... or at least I think they are. I am not volunteering, however, for the job of telling the dead guy's family that he was a combatant, because I suspect they'd disagree. If the strategy is about winning haerts and minds, I don't think that the neat distinction between civilians and combatants is actually all that useful.
7 comments this item posted by the management 4/16/2010 09:50:00 AM

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thursday Music Link

It probably says something about the world rather than about me that I had to go to titanic efforts and literally move the entire blog to Africa in order to avoid getting sucked into the cycle of horse-race commentary on the US election, but now we're something like two weeks into the campaign in my own country and it literally hasn't occurred to me to have a thought about it. In unrelated news, isn't it a bit funny that there are roughly equal numbers of superheros and supervillains, since psychopathic murderers are actually quite rare in the population as a whole?

Release Yourself.
7 comments this item posted by the management 4/15/2010 01:58:00 AM

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It depends who you ask ...

Working on a screenplay proposal again ... here's my elevator pitch:

All is quiet in an American holiday resort, when a Mr Big organised crimelord shows up in town. Only Tom, the hero, sees through him as he starts to buy the affection of the townspeople with free drinks and crazy parties. Soon, Tom realises that this man is stalking his wife, out of a creepy obsession with her that goes back to her childhood! There is a dramatic confrontation that ends with the gangster dead, and everyone realising that only Tom was right in seeing what a dangerous fraud he was.

I know, pretty cliched. I've got a pretty good working title though - "The Great Gatsby".
7 comments this item posted by the management 4/14/2010 06:47:00 AM

Friday, April 09, 2010

I have seen the future and it ...

Interesting to see that John Lydon didn't, in the end, have a bad word for Malcolm McLaren after his death. It probably says more about Lydon than it does about McLaren though - the historical record does show that more or less everyone who ever worked with McLaren ended up with at least a little and usually a lot of bad feeling over the experience.

As far as I can see, McLaren was one of the first of a type of person that we're going to see a lot more of in the coming years - he had a genuine talent, for finding creative people and connecting them up to world culture in an interesting way. Which is clearly a very valuable thing, but it worries me that there are absolutely no safeguards or regulation on this sort of relationship (how could there be), and the potential for the creative party to it to end up being ill-used is very obvious. Like other forms of talent, this talent for editing and curating isn't always associated with very high moral standards (compare this situation; I have no opinion on the merits of the case, but I do happen to know that Michael Wolff once lied about his father-in-law needing open heart surgery in order to gain an advantage in a business deal, so I am not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt).

So, John Lydon has it right - we should miss Malcolm McLaren as a great entertainer. But there will be a lot of other Malcolm McLarens to come, and when you're dealing with one, keep a tight hold of your wallet.

Semi-related link

Edit: Jamie draws the obvious (in retrospect) comparison to Tony Wilson. Two things strike me: 1) the fact that for most of his life Wilson was beset by Manc whiners who thought they hadn't got a fair shake does make you realise that not every complaint by a 'creative' person about how much money they've got should be taken at face value, and 2) the comparison is indeed really quite unfavourable to McLaren - it's basically the difference between someone who builds a factory on the one hand and a Natural Born Resource Curse on the other.
6 comments this item posted by the management 4/09/2010 05:32:00 AM

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Thursday music link

How different would the history of ideas be if the story of "The Emperor's New Clothes" had made it into Plato instead of that incomprehensible bollocks about a cave? It's actually an extremely sophisticated story - the version we tell to kids is just a fable about the value of bloody-mindedness and the fact that adults are often really dishonest, but in a more grown-up version, the adults in the story wouldn't be pretending to see the clothes out of social intimidation, they'd genuinely believe that the clothes were there, in defiance of the evidence of their own eyes. Because that's what the world's like - from the real estate bubble to the fact that Irish priests were abusing children, the world's full of things that everyone has basically known all along, but didn't really know that they knew. Zizek calls them the "unknown knowns", by analogy with "known unknowns", but Hans Christian Andersen got there first.

Hypocrite. Lush were a massively underrated band I think, and terribly unlucky in their historical timing, given that they came out of the fanzine scene in more or less its last generation before the invention of blogs. I'd love to see what Crispin Wright would make of the line "I know you think it's wrong, and maybe you're right but this is my song".

Bonus ball - the indie version of "I will survive", for all my ladies out there. Smooth. This was me in the 90s. Update, in response to email abuse - this was not me in the 90s. I have no ladies out there. I have never been smooth. Are you happy now?
54 comments this item posted by the management 4/08/2010 02:01:00 AM

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

You can't have a housing crisis without a crisis in housing

Paul Krugman is telling it like it is on his specialised subject of exchange rates and trade. My main topics of conversation these days are babies and house prices, however, so I think I can help him out on this one:

There have been many stories about the decline of the birth rate in 2008, with almost all attributing it to the recession. But James Trussell raises an interesting point: doesn’t it take nine months from conception to birth? Abortion aside, to reduce births in the first three quarters of 2008 in response to a recession that started in Dec. 2007 would have taken pretty impressive rational expectations.

What are we missing?

Basically, two things, both related to the difference between the overall cycle of output and the situation of the average American consumer.

1. You don't in general start a family unless you are securely established in a house which will be suitable to put the family in. As house prices rose, fewer people were in this situation. As foreclosures rose, even fewer people were in this situation.

2. And foreclosures were a leading indicator of the crisis and recession: as The Australian correctly notes, those of us for whom the share price of HSBC was a big deal were aware that something was going very wrong in California in late 2006/early 2007.

In any case, it's not exactly unknown that consumer confidence is a leading indicator; that's why it's so assiduously surveyed. The same lack of confidence that had people postponing family events in Q1 07 was part of the causal process that put the economy into recession in Q1 08.
8 comments this item posted by the management 4/07/2010 01:56:00 PM
Feminism in economics, did you even need to guess this one?

From comments on a Freakonomics post, Robert Waldmann finds out that a) I might have been right that Katarina Juselius would be considered a more significant economist than Hayek if it weren't for the fact that b) nearly everyone cites the sole-authored Johansen (1988) paper despite the fact that they're almost always using the results from Johansen & Juselius (1990) because that is the paper in which the asymptotic critical values were calculated.

If you don't like the implication that Juselius got screwed because she's a woman, feel free to print it out, then write the words "What a difference a single letter makes!" in a bold font and stick it over the title.
0 comments this item posted by the management 4/07/2010 09:33:00 AM

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The army of labour takes its casualties too

Horrible beyond belief. Coal miners still die every day, at rates higher than most soldiers in wartime, in a cause that is directly and immediately related to the comfort in which the rest of us live (Orwell was eloquent on this subject). They also get regularly banned from public-houses where they want pints of beer. Nor can a coal mine be used as an instrument of domestic repression or overseas aggression. In many ways, the kind of things that politicians regularly say about miners and their unions ought to be regarded with similar disgust to that which would be shown if anyone dared to talk of serving soldiers in the same way.

Edit: of course, this is not remotely inconsistent with hoping that the human race might one day advance sufficiently to put an end to both war and the digging of coal.
21 comments this item posted by the management 4/06/2010 11:05:00 AM

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Gallery Of Unconvincing Smiles

Via Charlie in B&T comments, this is one for the ages. It's exactly how I would look if I had set out to burnish my image as a man of culture by commissioning a huge and expense public work of art from Anish Kapoor (whose stuff I usually like) and this was what was delivered.

Update: I'm not sure who the guy on the right is, but he isn't even trying.
3 comments this item posted by the management 4/02/2010 02:46:00 AM

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Thursday music link

"A stopped clock is right twice a day". But is it?

For what proportion of a day is a stopped clock wrong? It is wrong at all times during the day except when the position of its hands happens to correspond with the current time. But since time is continuous, this point has no duration. So there is actually no part of the day during which a stopped clock is right.

In general at this stage in my argument people object that most clocks don't usually move continuously; they tick. That can actually be disposed of similarly - such clocks are always wrong by the same argument (you could have a proverb "ah well, at least a clock with a discrete second hand is right 86,400 times a day, unless it is out of sync or phase in which case it is never right").

We have to also take into consideration though that human beings can only discriminate both time and the movement of clock hands with a certain degree of resolution. So there will be a short period of time twice a day when the fact that a stopped clock is wrong will not be observable. I therefore suggest the proverb "A stopped clock might appear to be right twice a day, but is actually still wrong". But I could be wrong about this.

Call Me. Ahhh Blondie were a great band.
21 comments this item posted by the management 4/01/2010 01:37:00 AM

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