Friday, September 28

Islam, the Marxism of Our Time

Islam is fast becoming the Marxism of our times... The dictatorship of the proletariat, it seems, has given way before the establishment of the Caliphate as the transcendent answer to...personal angst.
Theodore Dalrymple is referring to Germany, but I believe the theory has wider application.

People are like that

Most people think in essentialist and non-statistical terms, as if all the members of a category were uniform copies of an invariant prototype.

Wednesday, September 26

See a Problem? Make It Illegal!

The first of several quotes from Shankar Vedantam
In recent decades, [say Douglas Husak and Lawrence Solum, legal theorists and philosophers], Congress has passed innumerable laws that no one seriously expects will be enforced. Such laws largely seem to serve symbolic purposes and are often designed to placate some powerful constituency -- conservatives in the case of immigration, or the entertainment industry in the case of laws that seek to deter people from swapping copyrighted music and movies.

The yawning divide between reality and what such laws say should happen is what produces the dilemmas that lead to amnesties.


The consequence of symbolic lawmaking is over-criminalization, which turns out to be as difficult a problem to deal with in the long run as crime itself.

When laws are passed that cannot or will not be enforced, people quickly come to understand that the law does not mean what it says. This is why, if you actually happen to drive at the 55 mph speed limit on the Capital Beltway, you seriously run the risk of getting rear-ended by the flood of vehicles that are whizzing by 5, 10 or even 20 miles per hour faster.

There is a law about speeding, but it is not the law that is on the books. Exceed a certain speed -- it might be 60 or 65 or 70 mph -- and you are going to get a ticket. What Solum and Husak are arguing is that, if the cops are going to give you a ticket when you cross 65 but not when you cross 55, set the speed limit at 65. Get the law to mean what it says.

"When we set up laws that are intended to express symbolic disapproval, but that we are not willing to enforce, we send a message that we are not expecting people to obey the law," Solum said. "The immigration laws are a perfect example of that."

The problem is not just that when people start interpreting the law on their own, they come up with wildly different interpretations-- some people drive 5 mph over the speed limit, others think the magic cushion is 15 mph. The bigger problem with setting the bar too low, so that large numbers of people become lawbreakers, say Solum and Husak, is that it greatly enhances the discretionary powers of police, prosecutors and the executive branch.


Most people who get in trouble are the ones who police and prosecutors decide, for whatever reason, should be punished, Husak says. Enacting impractical laws that have largely rhetorical value, in other words, leads to selective enforcement -- with all the attendant risks of unfairness and bias.

The Actor-Observer Bias

When people do something unforgivable, we often find it easy to conclude that the wrongdoing is a manifestation of their nature. This allows us to go after them with a vengeance -- when you are dealing with fundamentally bad characters, anything that can undermine them is fair game.
When we do something wrong ourselves -- drive 60 mph in a 40-mph zone, for example -- we explain our actions in terms of situational factors. We say we are speeding because we are running late, or that we got held up at work. But when we see someone else do something wrong, we are far more likely to link the behavior to the nature of that individual.

A Disturbing Reality

...once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

We'll See

...contrary to conventional explanations, suicide attacks follow a certain strategic logic. From 1980 to 2006, Pape has counted 870 completed suicide attacks -- with the Iraqi insurgency accounting for the majority of such attacks in recent years.

Of the total, Pape has found that 824 of the attacks, or 95 percent, have come from groups that are fighting against military occupations of their homeland. Pape found that 85 percent of all the suicide attacks in the last quarter-century have come about in response to U.S. combat operations. There were eight times as many suicide attacks in Iraq in 2006 as there were in 2003.


Pape believes his findings offer empirical proof that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not lowered the risk of suicide attacks. Contrary to President Bush's argument that those wars provided the best way to lower the risk of suicide terrorism, Pape says the data show that launching overseas wars appears to be a way to increase the risk of suicide attacks. Improved homeland security, rather than foreign military occupations, the political scientist argues, is the way to lower the risk of suicide terrorism.

Unlike many of the other theories circulating in Washington, his theory can be put to a simple test, Pape said. For the first time, Pape said in an interview at the political science convention in Chicago, the troop buildup in Iraq has aggressively targeted Shiite groups, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Until now, suicide attackers have been largely limited to Iraq's minority Sunni population. Pape believes that U.S. operations against Shiite groups will cause increasing numbers of Shiites to see the Americans the way many Iraqi Sunnis do -- as occupiers, rather than liberators.

Why People Buy Stuff They Don't Need

  • people buy unnecessary features because of two cognitive errors -- they overestimate the risk that a product without such features will become obsolete, and they overestimate the likelihood that they will learn to use the new features.
  • parents, especially poor parents, tend to buy products they cannot afford because they are acutely focused on whether their children are fitting into peer groups....[T]hey are acutely sensitive to how certain consumer products influence their children's "search for dignity."

In Judging Risk, Our Fears Are Often Misplaced

Lerner found that anger and fear systematically bias people's risk estimates in opposite directions. Anger causes people to underestimate risks, which may be why drivers in the grip of road rage confidently attempt perilous maneuvers that place themselves and others in danger. By contrast, people who are afraid overestimate risks.

...people worry a lot more than they should about the kind of scenarios depicted in Hollywood thrillers and the nightly news, and worry a lot less than they should about 'mundane' risks that do not make for gripping entertainment but kill a lot more Americans every year.

Malevolence or negligence on the part of others also seems to trigger our warning systems much more easily than the risks we pose to ourselves by smoking or leading sedentary lives. The number of Americans who have committed suicide in the past six years is more than 50 times the number of Americans killed by al-Qaeda operatives on Sept 11, 2001.

'The risk for any given person for suicide, particularly for middle-aged older white males, is dramatically higher than the risk of being mugged or being in a terrorist attack,' Lerner said.

Tuesday, September 25

Iran executes more Arabs

While condemning Israel for abusing the Palestinian people, Arab states are silent about the abuse of fellow Arabs by the Iranian regime. The anti-imperialist left is also mute. Why the double standards? Palestinian Arabs get the support of progressives and radicals everywhere; Iranian Arabs get no support at all. They swing from nooses in public squares like cattle hanging in an abattoir. Does anyone care?

Sunday, September 23

Not Exactly Intelligent Design

Life seems the handiwork of a mad designer, who fits several DSM diagnoses from the American Psychiatric Association. He--only a male would do this--is obsessed with intricate details so long as they do not get too much in the way of other devices he concocts. For example, he designs and builds a bird such as the Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea, apt name, that), which annually migrates in a figure-eight pattern across the North and South Atlantic from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Brilliant, brilliant design, a navigation system with two routes from pole to pole, sturdy enough to survive earth's cruelest seas--all madly miniaturized in a brain the size of a plum. But why on earth, were it not for a lunatic fascination with design itself? A proof, thus, that the earth with its denizens is the work of a crazed design-freak.

Wednesday, September 19

Political Censorship: Bad; Religious Censorship: Good

On Sept. 18, in an item titled Chilling effect on free speech
NBC Nightly News had a report whose blurb read:
America is supposed to be an open society. But more and more, speech is being stifled. NBC’s Bob Faw reports.
But aside from a reference to Janet Jackson, it was all criticism of the stifling of anti-war speech. Fair enough. But the report said nothing about Kathy Griffin's remarks after her Emmy win, which were apparently not telecast. According to the Voice of America:
In her speech, Griffin said that "a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus." She went on to hold up her Emmy, make an off-color remark about Christ and proclaim "this award is my god now!"
So what was the "off-color remark" that the VOA didn't dare mention?

Tuesday, September 11

Fair trade and protectionists

Advocates of "fair trade" effectively work to ensure that poor people "get charity as long as they stay producing the crops that have locked them into poverty." Campaigners for trade barriers to protect poor countries from globalization are "idiots," and rich-country bankers who hide and invest kleptocrats' assets are "pimps."

Monday, September 10


This looks like it's helpful to understand where federal expenditures are going, and how much a billion means in those terms.

Sunday, September 9

Don't Drink the CAFE Kool-Aid

  • more stringent CAFE standards would increase the cost of making a car, which would be passed on to buyers
  • if a carmaker sees an opportunity to add value for their customers in excess of costs, it will do so; regulation typically reduces profits
  • an increase in the price of cars would generate fewer car sales

What if all patients could be seen on the day they call?

The challenge of reducing waiting times is a classic queuing problem in operations research. Professionals in all sorts of service industries, from restaurants and hotels to banks and department stores, have faced it in one form or another. Most of them handle the juggling of clients far better than physicians, despite the lower stakes. Mounting evidence shows that doctors can see patients quickly, too—even in perennially backlogged practices—and that when they do, they benefit themselves and the people they treat.


When a patient calls in the morning asking to see a doctor who uses open access, the office offers an appointment for that same day. Why are there openings available? Well, the main reason most doctors defer today's work to some time in the future is that today's schedule is clogged with appointments made weeks ago. Doctors following the same-day scheduling model, on the other hand, are free today because they saw yesterday's patients yesterday. Using open access, doctors might still schedule some early-morning appointments in advance, for follow-up visits or for patients who actually prefer a future appointment. But the key is that they keep most of their time free for same-day visits and fill up their schedules as the day goes.


Taking into account the total number of appointment requests is the first step to open access, but it doesn't do the trick on its own. It seems like common sense to balance the number of daily appointment slots with the average daily number of appointment requests. But a mathematical model built by operations researchers at Columbia University shows this intuition to be wrong. That's because demand varies from day to day, and not always predictably. If the average number of appointments is 20, for example, some days there may be 25 and other days only 15. Scheduling 20 slots every day won't work because extra service capacity can't be transferred from day to day: The unused slots from slower days cannot be recouped any more than empty airline seats can be sold after takeoff.

The only solution is to build in a margin of safety in the form of more appointment slots than an average day will ever use. That sounds like wasted capacity, but it's actually more efficient than filling up the appointment book in advance. That's because the further in advance patients make appointments, the likelier they are to miss them. A no-show rate of 30 percent is not uncommon. According to one study, many patients don't understand scheduling systems and find long waits insulting, so they think nothing of missing their appointment without calling to cancel. All these no-shows also add up to waste and lost revenue—the very problems traditional scheduling would seem to prevent. The strange upshot: By juggling too many patients, doctors lose income even as their backlog grows longer and longer.

Princess and Her Pea-Sized...


Yep. Who cares?

Saturday, September 8

It must be great to be a man

...I’m certainly not denying that culture has exploited women. But rather than seeing culture as patriarchy, which is to say a conspiracy by men to exploit women, I think it’s more accurate to understand culture (e.g., a country, a religion) as an abstract system that competes against rival systems — and that uses both men and women, often in different ways, to advance its cause.


When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?” This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth — these are mostly men.

Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to be a man.

The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs?

Culture has plenty of tradeoffs, in which it needs people to do dangerous or risky things, and so it offers big rewards to motivate people to take those risks. Most cultures have tended to use men for these high-risk, high-payoff slots much more than women.