Recently, a good friend of mine told me he read State of Fear by Michael Crichton.  I haven’t read it.  I don’t know what’s in it.  But he just randomly IMed me, “I just read this good book.  Though I don’t know how much of global warming I believe anymore.”  I was a bit shocked, and a bit relieved.  I’ve been a closet global-warming-slightly-non-believer for a while now… but I didn’t really talk about it much.  I mostly just listened and read what other people had to say about it.  I don’t have all that much actual knowledge on the topic.  I don’t want to get into a discussion as to whether or not the science is sound.  There are plenty of better forums to debate this.  Here’s my challenge to the people, posed in the form of an analysis problem:

Suppose global warming is happening, in the form that is being presented all over the place.

Prove that Mike should care.

Hear me out.  This proof is necessary for the rest of the discussion that’s happening right now, though I haven’t seen it addressed anywhere.  I can easily find many large environmentalist sites that present evidence that it’s happening, and then immediately turn to the question of how to stop/reverse it.  And I’ve done a lot of reading and listening without really seeing this explored.  The main consequences I’ve read about are sea level increase and pole shrinkage.  Without the above proof, I ask, “So what?”  Ok.  People and businesses will have to be relocated off of the current shoreline.  There will probably be damages… maybe even deaths.  But really, people, we’re still talking decades.  Political decisions and economics often cause such changes, and usually on shorter timescales.

It will shift the breadbasket of the world.  Sorry, Iowa and Nebraska, we’ll do more farming in Minnesota, Canada, and the Dakotas.  On the other hand, we’ll have the prime growing region be in an area where we haven’t destroyed the topsoil with centuries of farming.  Also, people will be moving further north.  One factoid I learned in my American Military History class was that 70% of Canadians live within the first 30 miles of the American border.  We’re talking about the second largest country (by land area) in the world.  I don’t think we have too many areas that are uninhabited or infertile because they’re too warm.  Sure, we have deserts, but elementary school taught me that deserts are all about moisture.  We have cold, cool, warm, and hot deserts.  The warmest areas often have the densest vegetation.

To sum up, we’ll get more habitable land, increased tropical vegetation, and brand new topsoil to farm.  All for the price of a bunch of oceanside property.  There might be a lot of it, but we’ve lost a lot of property over a timescale of decades in the past.  More habitable land and possible food production increases sound like a better long-term idea for a sustainable future.  Maybe our population needs to consider that change could be a good thing?  Please supply contradictory proofs at your leisure.

Back with a Vengeance?

July 25, 2009

I had a few topics come to mind in the past week that made me think, “I should blog about this.”  So I’m going to try to do so.  I’ll start with something related to my upcoming move.  I’ve been researching rental companies, and I couldn’t help but recall this excellent Seinfeld skit:

I personally don’t object to car or truck rental agencies overbooking.  It’s like airlines overbooking.  However, airlines have a federally mandated (I think) process for handling compensation.  They first can enter negotiations for someone to voluntarily give up their seat.  Then, if required to involuntarily bump someone, there is a schedule of “if your actual arrival time is X hours after planned, you get compensated Y% of your ticket price, up to a maximum of Z dollars (depending on whether it’s international and such)” that airlines have to abide by.  Why can’t we do this for rental companies too?  Sure, you can give me a reservation that you can’t honor… but if you do so, you KNOW you’re going to have to compensate me a certain amount.  This would save so much hassle and annoyance, on both sides.

I’m Back

November 16, 2008

So after almost a semester-long hiatus, I have returned to this blog.  It’s likely my few readers are not.  I skipped the last few months for a couple reasons.  First, school is insane.  That probably goes without saying.  Second, I was really trying to avoid writing about the presidential race.  I still like this decision in hindsight.  Now that the election is over and we’re a week away from Thanksgiving break (which has kept my workload low), I hope to spend a little more time with this blog.  Driving me to write today is this breaking news article from this morning.  I don’t plan on writing much of my own thoughts.  I more just want to pose a question that I cannot resolve.  How do documents like this fit into the popular worldview that we are doing no good in Iraq and that they want us out as soon as possible?  I still can’t get this.  Someone, please help.

A Pinch of Satire

August 6, 2008

This week in class, we introduced the Coase Theorem. It’s a counterintuitive idea applicable to externalities causing economic inefficiency. To explain, lets start right off with the example Ronald Coase originally wrote about.

Suppose a railway travels through farmland. The farmers plant crops right up to the railway. Sparks from trains tend to cause fires on the farmland. Now, instead of going to the law to determine property rights in order to force one party to adjust their behavior (or at least, their attitude), Coase proposed that the most efficient solution would be to allow the parties to bargain to a solution. We have to consider a few quantities:

  1. The amount of damage caused. In this case, we consider the fires to be very expensive (say… $10,000).
  2. The amount it would cost the ‘damaging party’ to change his behavior. For this case, we assume there’s a moderate cost (say… $1,000) to develop and introduce an attachment for the trains, which catches the sparks.
  3. The amount it would cost the ‘damaged party’ to change his behavior. For this case, we assume there is a large amount of farmland near the long railway. Therefore, it is expensive (say… $5,000) for the farmers to not plant the land near it

Given this set of assumed valuations, the optimal solution would be for the farmers to pay the railroad owners some amount between $1,000 and $5,000 to develop and introduce the attachment. In this case, both parties are better off than the status quo. It certainly seems like a counter-intuitive result, but it is undoubtedly the most economically efficient one. Depending on the magnitude of these values, we can see other results. [1>2>3, the railroad owners would pay the farmers some value between 2 and 3 to not plant near the railway; 2>3>1, the railroad owners should pay the farmers some amount between 3 and 1 to accept the fires; all other combinations are likewise with the range of payment determined by the smallest two values and the result of the smallest value]

Given this knowledge, we can consider people who think global warming and ‘carbon pollution’ is the single greatest problem (or externality) we face today. The amount of the damage can then be modeled near infinity. The amount it would cost to get them to change their view on the matter is also very, very high. The economically efficient solution is then for these people to pay carbon producers who find it to not be a problem some value between infinity and the amount it is worth for them to change their carbon-producing behavior.

In light of this analysis, I’d officially like to announce that I proudly produce a whole lot of carbon dioxide, and I do not find this to be a problem. However, since I assume there will be strategic use of resources to reduce the most amount of carbon with the least amount of payoffs, I have yet to decide how much monetary value I will assign to my changing this behavior. I’ll get back to you when I figure out how much money I can get.

This should be the last random thought from economics that I bring to this blog. Class ends on Friday. However, I’ve been reading my general relativity book (in preparation for class this fall) and a book on philosophy and mathematics that was loaned to me by a friend. You have been warned.

Mental Accounting 101

August 4, 2008

In econ class, we’ve been talking about challenges to the ‘rational consumer’ assumption. We started out looking at utility (‘happiness’) as a function of wealth. We made the argument that it’s concave (the first derivative is positive, the second derivative is negative). Essentially, this means that as you make more and more money, additional money brings you less happiness. Your first million dollars > Your 18th million dollars.

We then interjected Kahneman and Tversky’s Nobel Prize winning prospect theory.1 They introduced the concept of ‘framing’. Given two statistically identical options, one which is written as “saving lives” and the other is written as “they will die”, people change their attitudes toward risk. Similar changes in attitudes are found when considering financial gains and losses. We are more risk adverse when facing gains (we prefer a sure thing), yet more risk loving when facing losses (we prefer a chance to lose less). This is kind of a counter-intuitive result, which is why it helps to read the actual examples used.

We then moved to discussing the phenomenon of ‘anchoring’. Essentially, we make a baseline value judgment based on the status quo (or sometimes, completely random things). For our small-scale example, my teacher gave us the hypothetical situation that he was selling his ipod. He gave us each a piece of paper. We were to write down three things: the last two digits of our student ID number, whether or not we would pay that amount for his ipod, and what the maximum we would pay is. What was really odd is that you could correlate increasing student ID with a higher willingness to pay! Apparently this is confirmed in larger, more formal studies too (using SSC numbers, spinning a wheel, etc.) We, somewhere in our mind, begin our valuation on a completely random number that we were forced to think about.

We discussed the inclusion of ‘fairness’ in utility functions. One person of a pair was given $100. They decided how much to keep and how much to give to the other person (whom they didn’t know). The second person had veto power, resulting in no one getting any chedda. If given less then about 30% (on average), the second person would tend to veto the deal. Getting nothing (but a fair nothing) > Getting $30.

Finally, we ended on the idea that we sometimes use percentage-based valuations. Two variations on a question are posed to two similar groups. They are buying a calculator and a jacket (one group thinks the calculator is worth $120 and the jacket is worth $15, the other, vice-versa). They are told they could get the calculator for five dollars cheaper at a store across town ($115 or $10, respective to the group). The group who thought they were saving 33% on the calculator were much more likely to drive across town than the group who thought they were saving 4% on it. Five Dollars > Five Dollars.

All of this talk of weird mental accounting reminded me of my favorite quote from the movie “I, Robot”. There is a voiceover by Dr. Lanning,

“There have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code, that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?”

1. I’d like to give you a copy of the original paper from the March ’79 issue of Econometrica, but I can’t find a free link anywhere and I can’t figure out how to include my .pdf from JSTOR in a post (not sure it would be entirely legal, either). It’s a very easy read (which is why I encourage reading this one), and if you’d like a copy, I encourage you to look to your resources or talk to me.

The Darkness

July 23, 2008

I saw The Dark Knight Monday night. Note: if you expect me to not include spoilers in this post, I expect you to be illiterate. I found this movie to be the single best movie with the central theme of vigilantism (via superhero or not) since The Boondock Saints and the best Batman movie ever. I say this because Christopher Nolen took the major conundrums always elicited by these movies and kept them from being cliché. He was able to add an extra factor to keep the scenarios fresh. It also helped that his methods fell in line with what I’ve been studying and thinking about lately.

I’ll get back to the themes and ideas that I liked in a moment, but I would like to point out quickly that the film does have its shortcomings. There are a few loose ends, a few transitions not well explained, and a few concepts not fleshed out enough to provide satisfaction. These range from the moderate problems (leaving the Joker in a room full of elites) to the minor (simply not having the time to detail Harvey’s transformation of character). The flaws in story flow seem more driven by the desire to keep the movie under three hours long rather than simply not being able to make a coherent connection between situations. However, there were times where I had flashbacks to Black Hawk Down. I wasn’t sure what was going on and had a hard time placing people in my mental tactical display1. This was very true in some of the action scenes (particularly the scene with the copycat batman), and I almost feel sorry for people who had to watch this on an IMAX screen. I didn’t see this on IMAX, but I saw Spider-Man 3 there; it was difficult to take in everything (especially the action scenes), as a person’s range of meaningful view simply does not cover that much area at one time.

I have one more random thought before I get to the main point. I’m pleased that they killed off Rachel. She’s not necessary for the important themes of the Batman storyline, and neither Katie Holmes nor Maggie Gyllenhaal added anything substantial to either Nolen flick. It will be amazing if the third film (almost sadly assured to happen) is far enough outside the movie-chunking machine mold that it fails to succumb to my oft-stated prediction, “It’s always about a girl.”

Slowly, we get to the main themes and ideas that greatly outweighed any problems with the movie. On the surface, two main conundrums seem cliché: whether Batman would go after Rachel or Harvey and whether the passengers on the ferry would press the button, saving themselves and destroying the others. The first would be a bit too cliché for me, if it had been in a vacuum (as in the Goblin+MJ+tram car in Spider-Man). However, the Joker’s game served three2 purposes other than lightly touching on the “crisis of conscience” theme. Least importantly, it drew Batman and Gordon (at least) away from the police station long enough for the Joker to escape again. It served as a defining moment of character development for Harvey (beginning his journey into becoming Two-Face) and Rachel. (I’d say the ultimate development is dead. Just to reiterate: YAY!) Most importantly, it brought into focus the influence of information on our decision-making process. This set the tone perfectly for the final not-quite-cliché ferry situation.

The ferry crisis seems straightforward enough: kill or be killed. The simple situation is interesting enough from the standpoints of morality, philosophy, psychology, and game theory that it’s no wonder similar situations have been invoked often in storytelling. As the viewer, however, we’re a point where we utterly distrust everything the Joker doesn’t elaborate on. If he’s speaking simply instead of eloquently expounding on his worldview, he must be lying. We could make a solid argument that the detonation devices are actually a tool for suicide rather than for homicide. This changes the game-theoretic setup. It allows us geeks to impose a whole new realm of mathematics to the situation in order to find an optimal solution3.

It handled those themes without falling into two major pitfalls. While lightly exploring the “should Batman hang up his cloak… people are getting killed under this rationale” idea (which, by the way, is a terrible theme to spend too much time on… see Spider-Man 2), this film refrained from getting too deep in it. Nolan quickly used it as a tool for Gordon and Harvey to plot their own deception while avoiding the public opinion factor. Often, moviemakers have the vigilante’s decision to hang up the cloak/web/axe/bottle/greenness/random-cause-of-greatness swing dependent upon public opinion. All of a sudden, the people don’t like him! Make him stop! This is the beautiful thing about Batman. The public is supposed to fear him. If they don’t fear him, things get campy and he becomes just another super-powerless cop wearing a really expensive batsuit (which looks ridiculous now that he’s running daytime ops for the cops). Other Batman renditions get campy wayyy too often. Other superheroes think, “People don’t like me. I’m going back to my mother’s basement.” Batman thinks, “Screw people. They don’t know what’s good for them. And they’re probably criminals. (what else from Gotham?)”

The potential for campiness was going to be my second major pitfall… but I guess I already introduced it. I’ll instead make quick mention that they could have gotten closer to breaking the one rule every last superhero vigilante must abide by: don’t kill people. To this day, The Boondock Saints is the only movie that I know of which adequately discusses lethality in vigilantism (and for this I will commend it. Forever.)

Now… The characters. Christian Bale was everything we needed from Batman and nothing more. People seem to hate his often stoic and almost flat mannerism in comparison to the Joker. But that’s what Batman is. Stoic. Scary.
The Joker. Perfect selection of a villain for a movie this dark. Quirky, intriguing, and never dull portrayal by Heath Ledger. He said, “You complete me” to Batman… and the Joker definitely completed this movie. His character single-handedly allowed the themes I spoke about to mesh together. Any more traditional villain simply wouldn’t have made it acceptable. The best thing about this character was that he was HILARIOUS… but you were often too scared to laugh.

I have one last geek statement before I finally make myself quit talking and actually do something with my time. Do you have ANY idea how much raw computing power it would take to process all the data from Lucius’ sonar system? Or the algorithm complexity necessary to do things like find a specific voice from the masses? We’re not talking polynomial time computation here. I just wouldn’t be me if I didn’t simultaneously love this concept (and that of constructing the fingerprint from bullet shards) and hate the fact that it’s so inconceivably impossible.

I could continue to talk forever on my thoughts the past few days [about this movie (mostly those few main themes I mentioned) and about my research (which sometimes relates to the movie)]4, but we all have better things to do. Go do them.

  1. While this was just perfect for Black Hawk Down (the viewer really shouldn’t be able to put together an all-encompassing vision of what’s going on everywhere… not even the commanders on the ground knew what was going down everywhere simultaneously), it did hurt the watchability of this movie a bit.
  2. A fourth may be that it directly expanded on the ‘crisis of conscience’ situation. What does Batman do after saving Harvey? Does he say, “Hey dude, you know I didn’t really mean to save you. The Joker lied to me. You’re really worth peanuts to me or anyone else.”
  3. I’ve been doing a bit too much research into intransitivity lately. I ended up googling “insanity of intransitivity” simply because I wanted to see if anybody else thought that the implications of intransitivity are simply beyond comprehension. I found this page which gives me yet another view that is shockingly relevant to themes in this movie.
  4. Record for terrible use of parenthetical statements! I knew I had it in me.

Apparently, a while back I made a decision.  I would check Weather.com in the morning.  If the chance of rain was 30% or below, it was low enough that I’d skate into campus.  If it was 40% or higher, I’d walk.  There are more factors, but that’s how it generally goes.  I don’t like the mess of wet sand and mud along the way getting into my bearings and making them any worse than they already are.

Sometime since then, my mind took the statistics out of it.  I know 20% chance of rain COULD mean I should get rained on one time out of five (the technical meaning of weather-based statistics is different and weird.. whatever).  However, when it started raining on me this morning after I was part of the way into campus (after seeing a 20% chance of rain), I thought to myself, “Grrr.  Weather.com lied to me.”  I shouldn’t do that to Weather.com.  They don’t claim binary logic, and I shouldn’t impute it to them.

Does anyone remember the movie “A Beautiful Mind” from back in ’01? I liked it when I saw it. I especially liked when Nash and his ‘friend’ defenestrated a desk. If you haven’t seen it, I’d still recommend watching it. It provides an intriguing insight into torturing genius.

In economics class today, we were taking a break from our study of classical microeconomics to touch on game theory. It was interesting, but I’d unfortunately learned most all of it previously during other research. Anyways, my teacher showed us a few clips from the movie and also gave us a copy of this article.  I found it to be a worthwhile critique of the movie’s poor presentation of Nash’s ideas.  I always knew I didn’t understand his ideas in a solid, rigorous manner, but I didn’t realize how skewed the movie depicted them.

Completely independently, several of my friends and I had often made jokes about “making money so I could buy myself a wife”, usually in reference to the often offered advice that young women “make sure he’s got a good job.”  Well, it just so happened that the movie set Nash’s brilliant flash in a bar while checking out a girl.  And it just so happened that they failed to present his ideas correctly there.  All this leads to the quote of the day by Mr. Landsburg, “…mating competitions can turn out badly because mates are not allocated through a competitive price system.”  One can only imagine if they were.

Source Amnesia

June 29, 2008

Link of the day. I get source amnesia all the time. This is what gives teeth to the saying “the truth is just a lie told often enough.” It’s probably also the reason why I’m nearly obsessive about every basic principle, assumption, and leap of logic. This is also why I like to attack an inconsistency in my mind immediately or at least write my concerns down so that I can revisit my thoughts later. It’s only sad how limited I am in the number of different things I can learn about (and all the challenges I’ve forgotten to ideas I have).

In other news, I’ve decided rats are masochistic.  It explains the data.

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