September 2008

2008 09 30
Liar Liar

Posted by in: logic, Philosophy, puzzles

Leiter tells me that you can win a book. If you answer this question correctly, your name goes into a drawing.

A logician vacationing in the South Seas finds himself on an island inhabited by the two proverbial tribes of liars and truth-tellers. Members of one tribe always tell the truth; members of the other always lie.

He comes to a fork in a road and has to ask a native bystander which branch he should take to reach a village. He has no way of telling whether the native is a truth-teller or liar. The logician thinks a moment and then asks one question only. From the reply, he knows which road to take.

What question does he ask?

…For our purposes here, we’ll assume that the answer is confined to a single “yes” or “no.”

I had heard this one years ago, and cannot now remember if I figured it out on my own or not. (Probably not, knowing my limitations.)  The only snag is that either I’m wrong, or else the last instruction—“the answer is confined to a single “yes” or “no.””—is slightly misleading. Here’s a hint: the instruction is playing fast and loose with the use/mention distinction. Oh, and if my solution works, then there are actually two questions he could ask.

Anyway, I submitted an answer.  We’ll see what happens.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 09 28
A stupid question

Everybody has been so busy recently marveling at the stupidity of Sarah Palin’s statements in her interview with Katie Couric that I think they haven’t stopped to savour the stupidity of some of the questions Palin was asked. How about this:

Couric: When President Bush ran for office, he opposed nation-building. But he has spent, as you know, much of his presidency promoting democracy around the world. What lessons have you learned from Iraq? And how specifically will you try to spread democracy throughout the world?

Bush, of course, has not been “promoting democracy around the world.” Changing this to “attempting to promote democracy around the world” would be almost as bad, implying that Bush’s efforts have at least been sincere, which I doubt, and which in any case Couric is in no better position to judge than I. The question accepts a highly partisan, and totally idiotic, way of framing the entire debate about Bush’s foreign policy.

Palin has no excuse for being so uninformed and unprepared, but at least she can point to the fact that she’s attempting to compose answers on the fly. But that’s Couric’s prepared question. She and her staff had time to think about it. And that’s what she asked.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 09 26

I just got back from watching the debate with some friends. I haven’t seen any commentary about the debate yet, except for a few minutes of talking heads right afterward. Anyway, my impression is that John McCain kicked Obama’s ass tonight. He came off as more personable, tougher, and more in command of the facts than Obama. Obama seemed to me to miss countless opportunities to knock McCain down a notch, and much to my frustration, repeatedly stressed points of agreement with McCain, even as McCain repeatedly claimed that Obama was confused on some point or another. In a sane world McCain would not be in any position of power, because he’s a rash, unprincipled warmonger whose stated policies would be disastrous for the country, and whose actual policies would be worse. But it’s not a sane world, and people would have to know something about the issues involved to catch the difference between the men, thanks in part to McCain’s impressive delivery, and in part to Obama’s nearly complete failure to press points with any effectiveness. They don’t, and so I think in the political sense the debate went clearly to McCain.

My only consolation is that there weren’t any game-changing gaffes, as far as I could tell, at least. Also, George Bush lost the debates in 2000 and 2004, in my opinion, but he still won the second of those elections. So perhaps these debates don’t matter too much, unless one candidate badly slips up.


Howls of outrage (15)

2008 09 23
About Schmidt

Steve Schmidt’s behaviour, as reported in stories like this one and this one, is a bit hard to figure. In case you’re not in a click-on-links mood today, he’s acting like a bitter child whenever the press comes up with a story he doesn’t like (or fails to put out a story he does like). I mean, I get that it’s supposed to be just one more example of the long-established practice of working the ref, which has worked especially well for Republicans in the past. Both sides do this. Both sides are expected to do this. But it’s a delicate business, and there’s a note of petulance in Schmidt’s complaining that seems to me to convey weakness rather than strength.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 09 20
A few things I find mystifying

Posted by in: Odds and ends

The temporary ban on shorting stocks: OK, I get temporary pauses in trading activity when the market is all roiled and everybody just needs to calm the fuck down. But this isn’t a ban on selling stocks, just a ban on shorting them. I don’t understand much about the markets, but the little I know suggests that this is silly. I don’t get it.

Google Chrome: I’m supposed to care why? I tried it and it’s reasonably fast. But it’s not that much faster than Firefox. I read yesterday that Google will allow people to write plugins, and am therefore less mystified now by Google Chrome than I was previously. But it’ll be a long time before Chrome has a library of plugins to match Firefox’s. And did we all stop caring about privacy just because Google designs products well? Is that like how we stopped caring about intellectual property and openness when we noticed that Apple designs products well?

Ghee: It’s like . . . butter . . . but, like, you don’t need to put it in the fridge . . . for, like, a year . . . and it’s still ok. Wha-?

Howls of outrage (8)

2008 09 17
Windows Service Pack 3

Wow. It changed my file associations so that mp3s would open in Windows Media Player instead of Itunes. That takes some nerve. People use automatic updating services like this to make sure their computers are protected, not so that a bunch of meddling dickwads can arbitrarily mess with the way their computers are set up. This isn’t the end of the world, but it is worth pointing out that Microsoft is communicating a real contempt for people in abusing the updating system this way. Of course if we really respected ourselves we wouldn’t be using Microsoft products in the first place, but still.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 09 17
Credit Default Swaps

Posted by in: Economics

I’ve wrote a post little while ago about the role that credit default swaps might have played in the whole Bear Stearns saga. And now they rear their ugly head again:

The Fed’s extraordinary rescue of A.I.G. underscores how much fear remains about the destructive potential of the complex financial instruments, like credit default swaps, that brought A.I.G. to its knees. The market for such instruments has exploded in recent years, but it is almost entirely unregulated. When A.I.G. began to teeter in the last few days, it became clear that if it defaulted on its commitments under the swaps, it could set off a devastating chain reaction through the financial system.

I’ll admit that I’m no expert in economics—god knows I have a lot to learn. But reading Dean Baker this morning reminded me how markets in things can work, if structured and regulated correctly. Baker was arguing that while we should have no intrinsic concern for the fates of short sellers, enabling this practice to occur in the right environment and with out undue distortion–that doesn’t mean with no government regulation– would be a good thing, a way for the market to regulate itself, to tell others, Whoooooaaaaaa!!!!! Simmer down now, ’cause there’s gonna be some tickers tumblin’ (or something like that). It seems to me that credit default swaps could have worked this way too. Because they are insurance policies issuing a payment if the bonds that the holder of the poilcy owns go bust, an unwillingness of issuers such as AIG to issue such policies could have indicated to potential buyers of bonds that maybe something isn’t right with them, thereby cooling the mortgage-backed-securities mania.

Of course, AIG was duped into thinking that the bonds were good and so bet on not having to pay out billions and billions in indemnities via their credit default swap obligations. And so, it seems, was everyone else. (Except Dean Baker, and a few others.) So the problems we’re seeing would not have been avoided simply by regulating the default swap market. But surely regulation there, combined with regulation elsewhere–especially the requirement that lenders make loans whose long-term sustainability does not depend on extremely unprecedented annual increases in homeprices–would have done some good. 

Moral: Another lefty communist supports government regulation. I know: woopty doo.

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2008 09 16
Talking to the Taliban

Graeme Smith is a Canadian journalist currently stationed in Afghanistan who writes for the Globe and Mail. Yoon and I know his sister, Caitlin, a jazz musician now living in NYC. A few months ago, while he was taking a short break from Afghanistan, brother and sister showed up at one of Yoon’s gigs, and then the next evening we all went out for a beer. It was a very pleasant opportunity to pepper someone knowledgeable with questions about Afghanistan.

Anyway, I noticed the other day that Graeme Smith recently won an “Online Journalism Award” for a series on the Taliban, and I just now got around to watching it. I think it’s really very good – far more nuanced and interesting than your average reporting from a war zone. This is especially impressive considering that he’s working in a short-form format – a series of little clips between 4 and 7 minutes long. Anyway, the series is called Talking to the Taliban.

When I last spoke to Graeme I threatened to interview him for this blog. I may get around to that when his book comes out, if I can get my hands on a copy in a timely manner, and he’s still willing.

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2008 09 12
Childrearing advice from Wondermark

Posted by in: Books


Howls of outrage (2)

2008 09 12
“One Liberal joked that the Tories couldn’t even get the pooping part right as the puffin is known for hiding its excrement.”

American politics is so juvenile, so petty. Instead of acting like children, American politicians should aspire to the seriousness of their neighbours to the North.

Howls of outrage (4)

2008 09 10
The MTA disappoints me, again

A few years ago I was on a flight from Toronto to New York. Early in the flight, the pilot came on and spoke for a minute. Practically nothing he said was intelligible, and I turned to the woman seated beside me and made a comment comparing the announcement to the absurd and often impossible-to-hear announcements you hear every day on the subway in New York City. She smiled. Twenty minutes later, we struck up a conversation, and ten minutes into the conversation she told me that her husband was in charge of communications for the whole of the MTA. We both laughed (I felt a bit sheepish, but she was very nice about it), and she promised to bring my comment to his attention.

So you see, I’ve tried to get the MTA to understand how badly it communicates. I’ve gone straight to the top, with a personal appeal, however inadvertent. And yet it seems to me even years after this encounter that they’ve still got a lot of room for improvement.

My experience Monday gives a good example of how crappy communication skills on the part of the MTA leads them to regularly and completely unnecessarily inconvenience hundreds of riders, including me. My brother was in town, visiting from Canada. We arranged to meet in Union Square outside the Barnes and Noble. He was coming from Queens and I was coming from the Newkirk Avenue Station on the B/Q line in Brooklyn.

Now, if you look at the map, you’ll see that someone traveling from Newkirk Avenue Station to Union Square is, all other things being equal, better off taking the Q. True, the Q goes local in Brooklyn, hitting three stops on the way into town from Newkirk that the B will skip. But once you’ve gotten to Prospect Park, the B and Q run on the same paths until Manhattan, and then the Q is actually a bit faster in Manhattan. It also goes directly to Union Square. The B, by contrast, will get you to the 4th St. Station at which point you’ve got a 10 or 15 minute walk to Union Square, or a transfer to the F or V up to 14th St., and a 5 to 8 minute walk to Union Square. So, as I said, all other things being equal, you’re going to want the Q if you’re headed to Union Square.

All other things being equal. But sometimes they’re not equal. If the Q is delayed for some reason, and it’s nice day, and you don’t mind a little exercise, you’re better off just getting the B and then walking in Manhattan. Wouldn’t it be nice, then, for the MTA to tell you when the Q is delayed?

When I got to the subway platform at a little after 8:30am, it was crowded with people. Eventually, a B pulled up. But it pulled up on the local track. This was odd. Was there something wrong with the Q? I scanned the station for signs indicating track work, but there weren’t any. Was a Q shortly behind it? I leaned out over the other side of the platform, looking vainly up the tracks to see if another train had come into view around the corner. But my view was obstructed by dozens of other people attempting the same thing. I know now that I should have gotten on that B. But since the B was running local, it no longer had any advantage over the Q within Brooklyn, and wouldn’t have taken me to the right place in Manhattan anyway. No announcement from the B train itself was forthcoming. So I decided to wait.

Ten or fifteen minutes later another B pulled up on the local tracks. There was no explanation for its unusual behaviour over the intercom in the Newkirk Avenue Station. There was no hint about where the next Q was, which would have helped me to decide between trains. Again, no announcement from the B train itself was forthcoming. Again, I leaned out as far as I could over the tracks, along with dozens of other people, and looked for signs of a Q. At this point I was going to be late, and since my brother doesn’t have a cell phone (?!?$?%?), he would be waiting with no explanation. If I got on the B-going-local and thereby passed up a perfectly good Q, it would make me even later. But if I waiting for a Q took longer than the amount of time the B would add in terms of walking then I would be better off simply taking the B. I let the B go by.

As I waited, I saw hundreds of other people making similar calculations. I heard people pulling out their cell phones to cancel appointments, and watched as people leaned out from time to time to see if anything was coming down the tracks. What made me so angry wasn’t the delay with the Q so much as the entirely avoidable inconvenience to everyone caused by the failure to communicate clearly what was going on, so that people could make informed decisions about how to rout around the delay. Now I know that they can do this. I know that they can do this because once every hundred years, and rarely when it’s needed, the speakers at the Newkirk Avenue Station will come to life and inform us that there’s, say, a Manhattan-bound Q train three stations away. So they know! They fucking know where the trains are, and they can communicate this information when they want to. The problem is that they rarely want to.

After a while, I saw co-blogger Brad walking by. I launched into a spirited denunciation of the MTA. After I had waxed apoplectic for a while, Brad laughed and then:

Brad: I hear you, believe me. Hey, I think I sense a blog post coming on!
Chris: Ha! That’ll show them. You better believe it.
Brad: I’ll comment the shit out of that post.

And then a B express train pulled up, and Brad hopped on. A B express. What did this mean? One reasonable interpretation of the B on the express tracks after two successive Bs on local tracks was that whatever unexplained mess had caused the Q to stop running and the B to go local was now cleared up. If that interpretation was correct, the Q would no doubt be pulling into the station shortly. If it was incorrect, I would be better off hoping on the B. And again, I needed to ask: was the next Q more than 10 minutes away from the station? If more than 10 minutes, then getting on the B would be worth it. If less than 10 minutes, I would be making myself even later by getting on the B. Gosh it would have been nice if the MTA had helped me and hundreds of other riders make an informed decision. I let the B go by.

And then waited. And waited. And waited. And finally a B and a Q pulled up at the station at the same time. Now I don’t want to be a bore, so I won’t relate any more of the story in detail. There were more delays, caused apparently by a malfunctioning train ahead of us that had to be taken out of service, though I’m not sure if that was only an explanation for the slowness of the service on the Q that arrived or whether it actually accounted for all the delays that morning. Once I actually got on the Q, and couldn’t do anything about my situation, I was bombarded by constant updates about the reason for the delays. But this information came too late to be of any use. I ended up arriving at Union Square just before 10am, about an hour more than the trip should normally take during rush hour. My poor brother had been eaten by wolves.

Subways are always going to have malfunctions that cause delays. But you can realize enormous gains in efficiency simply by communicating clearly and effectively so that people can act on good information. This is the case on any subway line. But at a station with more than one train, and a correspondingly complex set of trade-offs involved in picking a route to your destination, it’s absolutely essential.

Howls of outrage (25)

2008 09 04
Lies and Damn Lies

Posted by in: Math, Pundits, U.S. politics

(Note: I apologize for breaking Explananda with this post last night — I let my enthusiasm override my remembering-how-to-post.)

I suppose it’s fitting since my last post was right before the 2004 election, but I never thought my return would be about politics. Well, kind of.

For various reasons, including the interesting Obama/Clinton delegate math, I’ve been following this year’s election in greater detail than any in the past. Which, unfortunately, means I’ve been reading a lot of political articles. In the course of my travails I came across a particularly egregious example of the mis-use of statistics that got me worked up enough that I had to write about it somewhere. So here you go.

I found this in a post yesterday by Peggy Noonan at

I’m bumping into a lot of critics who do not buy the legitimacy of small town mayorship (Palin had two terms in Wasilla, Alaska, population 9,000 or so) and executive as opposed to legislative experience. But executives, even of small towns, run something. There are 262 cities in this country with a population of 100,000 or more. But there are close to a hundred thousand small towns with ten thousand people or less. “You do the math,” the conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway told me. “We are a nation of Wasillas, not Chicagos.”

The worst thing is that this even passes the sniff test; 262 times 100,000 is way, way less than 100,000 times 10,000, so it does seem like there are more people living in small cities than big cities.

Except: the first alarm should go off when you look at the numbers for small cities. 100,000 times 10,000 is 1 billion, and the population of the US is just over 0.3 billion. And of course, when you actually get to the facts, you find that over 58% of the US lives in cities with over 200,000 people.

The trick is using a floor for the number you want to minimize, and a ceiling for the number you want to maximize. The counting in the quote above counts New York City as a city of 100,000, and counts Eastport, Maine (my ancestral home, population 1640) and many other towns with population under 1000 as cities of 10,000.

Another example of this fun statistical manipulation: only 1% of the US population has a household income of over $400,000, but over 50% of the population has a household income of under $50,000. Clearly, the evidence show that most of the wealth in the US lies in the hands of working families.

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 09 03
Recently read: “Heads in the Sand”

Matthew Yglesias. Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats

I enjoy reading Matthew Yglesias’s blog, so it’s hardly surprising that I also found Heads in the Sand such a pleasant read. Because I usually stick to his blog posts, I’ve tended to think of him as a master of the short form post, typically a clear, succinct line of attack against a single idea. But it turns out that he’s also got a knack for holding my attention over the length of a book. If you like reading about American foreign policy, this well-written and intelligent book is well worth your time.

Heads in the Sand reviews the Bush administration’s policies since 2001 and compares them unfavourably to Yglesias’s preferred alternative, liberal internationalism. This is the view that conflicts between states can, and should, be handled by international institutions, rather than raw zero-sum power politics. Moreover, although powerful actors within such an international system may sometimes seem better off if they ignore the shackles and restraints imposed by such a system, in fact adherence to rules agreed upon by all can in fact be very beneficial even to the powerful. The Bush administration, needless to say, has tended to take the superficial view, regarding international laws, norms, and institutions as irrelevant annoyances. The result has been, in my opinion, far less freedom of movement than it might otherwise have enjoyed. (Or perhaps, far less freedom of the kind of movement that the U.S. ought to desire. Had the Bush administration respected international norms and institutions, it would not have had the freedom to invade Iraq. But this freedom was hardly beneficial.)

Yglesias is very hard, and rightly so, on the political and substantive merits of the strategies pursued by the Democratic party’s politicians and strategists in response to the Bush administration, especially since 2001. Perpetually stuck in a “defensive crouch”, they end up conceding keys elements of Bush’s outlook, and tend to quibble about tactics (like troop numbers in Iraq, for example), rather than attempting to reconsider the wisdom of the Bush administration’s overall strategy. The result is that Democrats look weak, uncertain, and incoherent. Electorally, they were punished for this in 2002 and 2004. 2006 was much better, but Yglesias warns that the failure to be clear-headed and honest in offering a genuine alternative to Bush means that the gains are easily reversed. This seems to me absolutely correct, and I frequently found myself hoping that Yglesias’s book was making the rounds within the Obama campaign.

One criticism I’ve heard of Yglesias’s writing is that he rarely engages with positions to his left. Perhaps part of the reason for this tendency is an extremely well-justified frustration on Yglesias’s part (which I share) at the habit of some left and centrist thinkers of training an inordinate amount of attention at very left-wing positions, as though these were actually held by people in positions of power. Because attention (and column space) is finite, the attention qualified as inordinate precisely because it so often left unchallenged toxic, popular, and deeply hawkish views held by people actually in positions in power. Michael Walzer serves as an exemplar of this sort of thinking in the book, but Yglesias has some other fine examples too.

Fair enough, I say. But Walzer-style finger-wagging is hardly the only way to engage with positions to one’s left. Indeed, one might consider . . . engaging them to see if they’re actually worth adopting, or to explain why they’re not to intelligent people of good faith who hold them. In particular, I would have appreciated much more engagement with principled scepticism about the justifiability of certain uses of American power that Yglesias regards as consistent with liberal internationalism. (Yglesias’s preface thanks the wise and venerable Jim Henley for reading a complete draft of the book. And Henley must have given Yglesias shit about this too.) Yglesias, for example, seems to embrace the consensus that the first Gulf War – “a swift and lost-cost victory” – was a fine affair:

The first Bush administration, acting within the internationalist tradition, chose to seize the opportunity [to use the UN to prevent aggressive warfare]. By waging war on Iraq through the mechanism of the UN, and by fighting for the limited objectives of expelling Iraq from Kuwait and forcing it to abandon the research and development of illegal weapons, the Bush administration did more than preserve Kuwait’s independent. It established a new, long-dreamed-of-norm — the principle that aggressive war, long notionally banned by various treaties, would actually be repulsed by concerted international action. This achievement was—and is—fairly remarkable and, though it’s seldom commented on, has held up shockingly well in the intervening years.

It’s here, for example, that I think Yglesias could learn a thing or two from sterner critics of U.S. foreign policy. It’s very true that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait presented an enormous challenge to a world looking to put aggressive war behind it. And the quality of Iraq’s brief stay in Kuwait left little doubt about what lay in store for Kuwait had Iraq not been forced out. When legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons programs are added to the mix, the case for this war deserves a respectful hearing, even if not acceptance.

But in retrospect the case against the first Gulf War looks stronger and stronger to me. First, when Yglesias points to “a swift and lost-cost victory,” of course he means it was a swift and lost-cost victory for the U.S. and its allies. For Iraqis it was anything but. Obviously Yglesias, who tends to be fairly sensitive to these issues, doesn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I often wonder how seriously people weigh this cost when they consider the competing considerations involved in assessing the justice of the first Gulf War. The U.S. systematically destroyed Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, resulting in massive and widespread suffering and death among its civilian population. This was deliberate policy. Because, contra Yglesias, U.S. goals went beyond forcing Iraq out of Kuwait and dismantling Iraqi weapons capacity. It was quite clear throughout both the elder Bush and Clinton administrations that the sanctions imposed would not be lifted so long as Saddam Hussein remained in power, and that the purpose of the original destruction was to discredit him as thoroughly as possible in order to facilitate his overthrow. (And while Iraq was obviously seriously dysfunctional by the time of the first Gulf War, the decade of sanctions, isolation, and suffering have surely contributed to the difficulties Iraqis now face as they struggle to rebuild their country. They are recovering from far more than Saddam Hussein.)

All of this encourages the thought that the case for the war is less obvious than is often assumed. At the very least it serves as a warning that even a war responding to a serious threat to international security is likely to be waged by people with a pathological indifference to human suffering, who are willing to use techniques over an extended period of time that are vindictive, cruel, uncivilized. Yglesias’s book is not about the first Gulf War, and so I don’t want to ding him for failing to go into length about it. But if I’m right that the first Gulf War is seriously morally problematic, then I do think it’s a problem for someone who takes it as naturally flowing from the liberal internationalism that he champions.

Kosovo provides another example of this. Yglesias takes Kosovo as a difficult case for liberal internationalism, but the war at least arguably squeaks by on his telling. But I think Kosovo is problematic for all kinds of reasons. In addition to the wholesale bombing of yet another country’s civilian infrastructure, here’s one: The air war was so damn easy for Americans that it really did play a role in fostering a mentality among many influential Americans that made the Iraq War possible. I’m sorry but that is a serious cost of that war.

Now, just because these wars, which strike me as problematic, are consistent with liberal internationalism as Yglesias understands it, doesn’t necessarily mean that liberal internationalism isn’t an outlook worth adopting. It might simply be the case that liberal internationalism needs supplementing with additional principles about the uncertainty and unpredictability of war and a good helping of scepticism about the people likely to wage it.

Soon enough, with a bit of luck, we may see a return to the American tradition of liberal internationalism. That tradition makes the Bush years look very bad in comparison. But then again, what doesn’t? If we see a return to this tradition, we’re really only getting started in thinking about the proper uses of American power and influence in the world.

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