December 30, 2006

Summer Reading

I've spent the last week working my way through The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It's a shame that much of it doesn't live up to the intense breathlessness of the first hundred or so pages, but then, the first hundred or so pages more than make up for any other shortcomings it might have. Maybe it's just because of my own experience with a long distance relationship, but the feeling of love and longing that Niffenegger captures, right off the bat and without any apparent effort, is truly startling; and the way she expertly drip feeds you the exposition of her fairly kooky premise lets you very gently get to know the characters and their universe, at the same pace that they're discovering each other. It's the sort of opening that should make other writers hopelessly jealous.

And even though it does drag and digress in places, every now and then Niffenegger will just really nail something - a description, a feeling, an encounter - and it pulls you straight back in. Plus, the narrative device she's built into the story has enough potential for intrinsic interest that you never really want to put it down, anyway.

I haven't quite finished it yet, and I'm getting an ominous sense of a disappointing ending approaching, but unless it's truly horrific I can't see myself doing anything except recommending the book with much enthusiasm.

In other news, I also read Freakonomics, but my opinions on that are, predictably enough, fairly lengthy, so I've hidden them after the jump (just click on the post title).

In the meantime, happy new year!

So I finally sat down and read Freakonomics on the plane; I felt like, as a pithy and opinionated blogger educated in the social sciences, I really kind of had to.

It was, I will admit from the outset, an engagingly written piece of work. Having said that, I also found it at times to be simultaneously bland and infuriating, mainly because so many of the “mind-blowing” revelations that the authors are praised for peddling are pretty bog standard stuff if you’ve done even a little sociology (or economics, or whatever). I mean, they have whole chapters that basically boil down to “socioeconomic status has some effects on peoples’ lives”, and I have a hard time seeing why demonstrating this using some vaguely cute statistics has earned the authors such accolades. Of course socioeconomic status has some effects on peoples’ lives: that’s why we use it as an explanatory concept in the first place.

Worse, though, is the brutish way in which they take their narrow (by their own admission) conceptions of the issues and extrapolate from the results as if one set of numbers explains everything there is to know about a phenomenon.

A good example is the section they have comparing swimming pools to guns in terms of potential for accidental death. As it turns out, children are substantially more likely to die in a swimming pool accident than in a gun accident, and the authors use this ‘startling fact’ to overturn conventional wisdom and have a good laugh at anyone – chuckle – who has ever been uncomfortable with the idea of their chilrden playing with firearms (the simple-minded dolts).

And, sure, I guess it does prove something sort of useful if parents end up being a little more vigilant when their kids are near water. But it takes such an arbitrary slice of such a complex issue that it ends up just being a meaningless (if catchy) factoid. So what if more children die by water than by trigger? This really says very little (if anything) about the relative merits of swimming pools versus handguns, and I think I can safely say that, Freakonomics notwithstanding, we would all rather there was a pool in every backyard than a gun in every closet. It’s like arguing that bananas are more dangerous than rat poison, because you’re more likely to slip on a banana peel than on a rat poison box: true, in some odd sense, but only if you’re looking at the picture through a pinhole.

The swimming pool problem is actually a neat example of the duo’s undoing later on in the book, too, when they take great glee in demonstrating that there’s no such thing as “good parenting” – how well a kid does depends on things like parental education and income, rather than on any active parenting techniques (like museum visits, encouraging reading, and so forth).

Or so they say. Again, this feat of mind blowing is achieved largely through a bizarre transformation of the issue into something to which Levitt can easily take his sledgehammer of a statistical analysis. The entire argument hinges on a study of school attainment in the US, which shows, ceteris paribus, that there is no statistical relationship between high test scores and a whole host of ‘good parenting’ practices (like, for instance, a parent who stays at home to care for a child instead of taking paid employment; or, again, like museum visits and encouraging reading).

But it’s exceptionally poor statistics to then imply that parenting practices have no effect on anything: they may not have an effect on test scores, but we can’t say much more than that. The obvious counter example would be the parents who, following Levitt and Dubner’s earlier advice, build a fence around their swimming pool to prevent accidental drowning. This arguably constitutes excellent parenting; just not the kind of parenting that would be reflected in a child’s test scores (except insofar, perhaps, as that child actually has test scores). Indeed, not only are there any number of demonstrably positive parenting practices that are unlikely to affect test scores (cooking healthy meals every night instead of relying on microwave dinners, for instance); there are also plenty of other ways to assess how well a child has been raised, and how often a child visits museums (for instance) may well have an effect on these alternative measures. Besides, how often does somebody look at a straight-A report card and say, “My, what a well-bred young man”? High test scores are not something I would intuitively regard as the indicator par excellence of good parenting.

It’s the same problem, over and over again: the authors reduce a complex issue to fit the limits of their data, then (undeservedly) expand their conclusions back to the problem’s original terms. And, yes, they do acknowledge that their data is often just “a proxy” for what they’re really trying to study, but without any intelligent discussion of what this practically means for their results (namely, that they don’t directly measure what the authors blithely trumpet as the object of analysis).

And this brings us to the nitty-gritty: the somewhat inflammatory statement made in Freakonomics that legalised abortion is what caused the fall in crime in the mid-Nineties (because, the reasoning goes, those most likely to have been aborted are also those who would have been most likely to become criminals had they instead been born).

I have a couple of problems with this argument, not because of any moral indignance at the idea, but because it is, again, an excrutiatingly narrow (and methodologically messy) approach.

First of all, let’s talk about crime rates. Crime rates take the total number of crimes committed over a given period of time and in a specified population, and then express that figure relative to that same population. So a crime rate of, say, 20% means that for every ten people in a population, two crimes were committed over the period being studied. If the crime rate then falls to 10%, it means that for every ten people only one crime was committed over the period being studied. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there were fewer criminals, because that’s not what crime rates actually measure (though of course the two are highly correlated). They also don’t measure the likelihood of a particular person committing a crime, or the likelihood of a particular person being the victim of crime, even though these are common intuitive leaps when thinking about crime rates (that’s why governments are so fond of publicising their fall).

I point all this out not to dispute the truth in L&D’s numbers, but to try and make clear how little crime rates really tell us about reality; once we start to question the ironclad "truth" of the statistic, we can start to appreciate some of the deeper problems in the abortion-crime argument. Crime rates, for instance, tell us nothing about the qualitative nature of crime. Consider: if ten crimes are committed on a given day, these might be ten completely unrelated incidents, or they might have been concerted as part of a organised crime syndicate. The former is, of course, lamentable, but the latter is arguably the more troublesome situation; organisations, as any good sociologist will tell you, have a strong tendency towards self-preservation, and a well-established crime ring will be far harder to eliminate than so-called ‘opportunistic’ crime. (Organised crime syndicates, once ‘busted’, often simply find a new way to make money illegally, rather than disbanding altogether; that’s why the Mafia continues to exist decade after decade, informant after informant.)

In fact, Freakonomics itself provides a good example of this in its chapter on crack dealers. The Eighties and Nineties saw a big jump in numbers of crack gangs in the US. This was undoubtedly reflected in the skyrocketing crime rates leading up to the mid-Nineties, but when those crime rates began to fall again, crack gangs didn’t cease to exist. On the contrary, even while New York’s homicide rate fell by almost seventy-five percent, cocaine related arrests fell by barely fifteen. So the much-ballyhooed fall in crime rates masks the fact that a greater proportion of all crime is now linked with well-organised criminal gangs that have a propensity to self-replicate. Can we really then say that abortion has "reduced" crime?

The answer is no, because abortion rates, of course, tell us nothing much at all about crime at all. Why would they? That we can demonstrate a statistical relationship between abortion rates and crime rates is interesting, but it is hardly conclusive. Nor is it instructive: pointing out large scale demographic trends is not a useful way to generate anti-crime ideas, unless you're an advocate of pre-emptively aborting or locking up low income individuals, just in case they commit a crime at some point in the future.

Even supposing we simply let the figures guide our anti-crime efforts towards the specific chunk of the population identified by L&D's abortion figures (low-income, single parent families), we run into the same problem outlined above: the abortion-crime link tells us little about the qualitative nature of the crimes that would have been committed by the aborted children of the Seventies. Murder? Rape? Aggravated assault? Burglary? Grand theft auto? Admittedly Levitt’s original study does differentiate between property crime and violent crime, but only to show that they are both affected by the abortion rate, and what good does that do? There is still a large qualitative difference between burglary and murder, and the two obviously require very different prophylactic strategies (it’s a trite example, but closing your windows when you leave the house will reduce your chances of being burgled; it won’t reduce your chances of being murdered).

The abortion-crime link also tells us nothing about why people might commit crimes. It’s not enough to say that they’re from low-income, single parent families: that may make an individual statistically more likely to have committed a crime, but it’s not a motive. Its laughable that L&D omit this from their discussion-- how can anyone claim to explain why fewer people are committing crime without reference to motive? It's abusrd!

In summary: boo on mindless use of statistics. Analyses like Levitt's can be useful in making people think about topics in new ways, but they are never and should never the faites accomplis that Freakonomics makes them out to be. Any social scientists who use statistics in their work need to be able to back up their numbers with a rich understanding of the reality that those numbers attempt to describe. Frankly I don't get the impression that Levitt really wants (or even knows how) to do that.

December 29, 2006

December 22, 2006

Out

Sydney's been pretty good so far. Our first day we lolled about by the harbour drinking white wine all afternoon, and our second we spent mostly at the zoo (I have now seen wallabies, kangaroos, dingoes, bilbies, and all sorts of other animals whose names you wouldn't believe even if I could remember them).

Then in the evening we took the ferry across to Manly, a suburb of Sydney on the other side of the harbour. We had a nice seafood dinner, but mostly I delighted in giggling at all the store names there, like "Manly Souvenirs", "Manly Liquor", and, my personal favourite, "Manly Ladies' Shoes".

So far the only bad part has been inserting the new battery I had bought for my digital camera (the old one shorted out mysteriously last month), spending all night wondering what the funny smell in the living room was, and then getting up this morning to discover that my camera had quietly melted into the coffee table. I shit you not.

And today we're fixing up to drive to Terrigal, a coastal town a few hours north. We'll be spending a rustic week there in a hired beach house, returning to Sydney just in time for New Year's Eve. And since we'll be without the web up there, I would just like to say:

Merry Christmas!

Conversations With Greatness CX



Yes, I do realise that it's still Thursday in most of the world, but it's Friday in my little corner...

December 21, 2006

Great Moments In Japanese Cinema

This was the description of one of the movies being shown on my flight to Tokyo yesterday (the day before? I'm not really sure):
Comedy - 'Udon'

Trying to put behind him a failed career at stand-up comedy abroad, Kosuke returns to Japan. He does not look forward to the terse response he expects from his father, a noodle maker with whom he has an awkward relationship . . . Somehow he manages to spark a nationwide udon boom and realises that his calling may lie in following in his father's footsteps.
Now, tell me, why is it that when the Japanese actually make movies it ends up sounding like it would if it were a SNL skit about the Japanese making movies?

December 19, 2006

POz

Tonight, I fly to Australia! (Well, actually, tonight I fly to Tokyo, then spend five and a half hours eating birthday bento in the airport there, then fly to Sydney and arrive on Thursday morning local time.)

Anyway, long story short, blogging will be even less forthcoming than it has been lately, though Conversations With Greatness should, internet willing, continue to appear in its regular Friday slot. I get back to London in the middle of January.

In the meantime, please enjoy this random thought:

If they really want to reduce drive-bys in the hood, why don't they just put in speed bumps?

December 16, 2006

Causing A Fuhrer

From Fox News: Gingerbread Nazi Display Moved to New Ohio Town on Hanukkah Eve

Wellington, Ohio – An artist who was forced to remove his Nazi gingerbread men from the window of a hardware store has set up the display in an empty storefront in another town.

"The Secret Lives of Gingerbread Men" depicts a small gathering at a Nazi rally. Keith McGuckin set up the display in this northeastern Ohio city Thursday night . . .

"I remember thinking to myself, 'What's the worst thing a gingerbread man can do?'," he said.
McGuckin continued, "Then I thought, 'Why stop there? What's the worst thing an attention-starved boomer who calls himself an artist can do?' And the rest is history."

McGuckin denies that the display was meant to cause offence, though he admits:
"This one does seem to rub people the wrong way."
Throwing his hands up in surprise, he added, "I never realised people felt so strongly about gingerbread."

McGuckin's next project is already in the pipeline: a life-size model of the prophet Mohammed made entirely out of Danish pastries.

December 15, 2006

I'll Bet It's Because They Were On A Break

Seen in the TV guide:



Oh man, that is, like, my favourite episode!

(Sorry for poor image quality. Buy me a scanner if you're that bothered, you moany gits.)

Conversations With Greatness CIX

December 14, 2006

Tall Tale

From Newsvine: World's Tallest Man Saves China Dolphins
BEIJING — The world's tallest man saved two dolphins in northeast China by reaching inside of them with his 3-foot arms to remove plastic they had swallowed, state media and an aquarium official said Thursday.
Is it just me, or does this sound like it would more convincingly read as follows:
Chuck Norris once saved two dolphins in northeast China by reaching inside of them with his 3-foot arms to remove plastic they had swallowed.
The story continues:
Attempts to use surgical instruments to remove the plastic failed because the dolphins' stomachs contracted in response to the instruments . . .

Veterinarians than decided to ask for help from Bao Xishun, a 7-foot-9-inch herdsman from Inner Mongolia, state media said.
Their conversation, of course, went something like this:

Vet 1: Well, I'm scuppered.
Vet 2: Me too. Let's leave these dolphins to die and go read the Guinness Book of Records.
Vet 1: Wait… What was that noise?
Vet 2: I don't know. It kind of sounded like logic expanding to fill a vacuum.
"Some very small plastic pieces are still left in the dolphins' stomachs," Zhu Xiaoling, a local doctor, told Xinhua. "However the dolphins will be able to digest these and are expected to recover soon."
Bao is thrilled that he was able to help save the aquatic creatures, telling media, "I've finally found my porpoise in life."

December 13, 2006

The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Lawyers

CBA wants its employees to be happy and healthy, so it sent around these helpful exercise guides for everyone's desks:



Irony, thy name is Dilbert.

December 09, 2006

Annals of the Semantically Impossible

From Newsvine: Serious Use For Silly String
STRATFORD, N.J. — In an age of multimillion-dollar high-tech weapons systems, sometimes it's the simplest ideas that can save lives. Which is why a New Jersey mother is organizing a drive to send cans of Silly String to Iraq.
They're going to fun those insurgents into submission!
American troops use the stuff to detect trip wires around bombs, as Marcelle Shriver learned from her son, a soldier in Iraq.

Before entering a building, troops squirt the plastic goo, which can shoot strands about 10 to 12 feet, across the room. If it falls to the ground, no trip wires. If it hangs in the air, they know they have a problem. The wires are otherwise nearly invisible . . .

"If I turn on the TV and see a soldier with a can of this on his vest, that would make this all worth it," said Shriver, 57, an office manager.
Oh, come on, lady, don't you think the US military operation in Iraq is enough of a laughing stock already? Now you want our boys to start strapping clown supplies to their fatigues? Why do you hate freedom?
In other cases of battlefield improvisation in Iraq, U.S. soldiers have bolted scrap metal to Humvees in what has come to be known as "Hillybilly Armor." Medics use tampons to plug bullet holes in the wounded until they can be patched up.

Also, soldiers put condoms and rubber bands around their rifle muzzles to keep out sand.
Okay, whoa, whoa, whoa. What are our soldiers doing with condoms? I pay my taxes to help fight the war on terror, thank you very much, not to support this pro-choice bullhonky. Why is the government handing out birth control all of a sudden? They should be telling the soldiers what they tell everyone else: if you're not willing to marry your gun, then you don't get to have sex with it.

I can be such a douchebag somtimes. Such a trenchantly satirical douchebag.

December 08, 2006

December 07, 2006

Short Amounts of Time and Something a Kid Does on Halloween

From Economist.com: All creatures great and small
The National History Museum at the University of Oslo has just opened an exhibition of gay animals . . .

Why [homosexuality] might be favoured by natural selection . . . is a difficult question to answer. In an attempt to do so, the exhibition picks on gay flamingos.
Man, talk about going for an easy target.

--

There was a mother-freakin' tornado a few miles from my flat today! Let me tell you, that was not what I was expecting to read when I logged on to the Bloomberg machine at work today to check the headlines.

Oh, and speaking of the Bloomberg machine, although I decided not to post about Lady Bonehead McFlatulence yesterday, it is clearly taking the financial world by storm; it was the fifth most emailed article on Bloomberg this morning.

I mean, can you imagine? The international information network for finance professionals and one of the most emailed stories is about some gassy American woman? Every second I spend in this business makes my life savings feel that little bit less secure.

December 05, 2006

Trans Actions

From Newsvine: NYC to Ban Trans Fats From Eateries
NEW YORK — From the corner pizzeria to high-end bakeries, New York City's world famous eateries are preparing for kitchen scrutiny as the board of health moves Tuesday to ban trans fats.

The board was poised on Tuesday to make New York the nation's first city to outlaw the unhealthy oils…

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who banned smoking in bars and restaurants during his first term, has dismissed cries that New York is crossing a line by trying to legislate diets.
No, sorry Mike, you are crossing a line.  The line of incompetent stupidity.  (It's a wobbly line, obviously, but you're definitely on the wrong side of it.)

I mean, I actually don't really buy the argument that legislating diets is overly invasive—why not restrict the use of harmful substances?  Governments do that all the time, and it's generally not that much of a hardship unless you're a crack-addicted, alcoholic teenager who enjoys bathing in toxic waste (man, if you think normal teenagers are moody…).  But since it's patently clear that banning trans fats is not really going to make much difference to anyone, I struggle to see the point in wasting time and money introducing such a bone-headed policy.

Exhibit A: If someone eats at McDonalds/Pizza Hut/Taco Bell/Billy Joe's House of Lard often enough that the ban will have a significant impact on their trans fat intake, then their trans fat intake is the least of their problems.

Exhibit B: A wide range of dipshits will interpret the banning of trans fat as evidence that McDonalds/Pizza Hut/Taco Bell/Billy Joe's House of Lard is now a healthy lifestyle choice, thus making them eat even more junk.

Exhibit C:  Simply removing one harmful ingredient from your diet is only marginally less pointless than, say, removing the shotgun pellet from your gaping flesh wound. What you need is to cut out trans fat, and eat more fresh food, and get a bike, fatty. (The same goes for shotgun wounds.)

In short, Michael Bloomberg is an ass, and I wish he would quit with the poorly-planned social engineering.

December 02, 2006

Hotscot: The Early Years

I know my blog output has been less voluminous than usual lately (it's also been peppered with more needlessly large vocabulary items; thanks Word Of The Day emails!). But, rather than do anything to rectify the situation like, oh, say, phone up and yell at the broadband company some more, or stop going out at the weekends, I've decided instead to avoid the problem by posting things I wrote years ago, in a misguided attempt at retrospective. Today, a satirical news piece I wrote back in 2002, when I was young hothead infuriated with the administration (now, of course, I reserve my ire for daytime television stars):
BUSH REJECTS YET ANOTHER BLOODY TREATY

Washington, DC— After months of infuriating diplomats the world over by withdrawing US support for several international initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missiles treaty, President George W Bush today rejected yet another attempt at creating a better world for everybody.

The International Commission For Ending Famine, War And Disease (TICFEFWAD) drafted the treaty earlier this month at a top secret, diplomatic 'Bat Cave' deep underneath The Hague. The agreement, which has already been signed by every other nation on the planet, would effectively put an end to all human suffering for the rest of time if endorsed by the United States. But Bush says he will not ratify the treaty, citing evidence that "it's printed in an ugly typeface".

The President also draws attention to the fact that there is not one mention in the treaty of how amazing America is, nor is there any mention of his great-tasting, Texas-style, extra hot chili.

"How can I, like, sign my name to this, like, bogus agreement when, like, not one European bureaucrat has, like, bent over and taken it up the ass from me today?" asked the President, in an uncharacteristic display of rhetoric.

James Z Hackenbush, the head of TICFEFWAD, is disgusted by the President's non-compliance. "The whole thing is a debacle of the greatest degree. With Bush's endorsement, the Earth would become a utopian society, with perpetual peace and happiness. But apparently, the President is just too fond of reality TV to fully end human suffering."

After Bush's overwhelming negativity, the agreement began to rapidly lose cohesion, with several other countries withdrawing their support on the grounds that there was no fucking point in signing any fucking treaties anymore. Jahatswa Neebuwany, representative of a small Eastern European country which has had two civil wars and been annexed by Slovakia since time of writing, had this to say of Bush’s behaviour: “Is this going to be on TV? Come to Jahatswa’s House of Expired Mayonnaise for all your condiment needs. What? No, I don’t want to talk about President Bush.”

Other diplomats, however, are less understanding. He has been branded “a thoughtless bastard”, “a blundering fool”, and “an American” by various representatives, who wish to remain anonymous.

Quick to come to Bush’s defense is his second-in-command, Vice President Dick Cheney. “George is just doing what he thinks is best for Americans everywhere,” maintains Cheney. “He read the treaty very carefully and ruminated over his possible actions for several seconds before coming to his decision, but he feels that it would be too damaging to the US economy. I believe there was also no mention of his chili.” The Vice President then made an irreverent joke about his pacemaker.

The remaining members of TICFEFWAD are already drawing up a new draft of the treaty, which includes several new clauses; such as a to-be-instated worldwide America Appreciation Day; an injection of European tax money into the US television industry; and an endorsement of the President’s chili. The new treaty is expected to be unveiled sometime next month, at which point Bush will wipe his poo-encrusted bottom with it again.
Chris, any word on whether or not there actually is a secret diplomatic Bat Cave underneath The Hague?

December 01, 2006