Tuesday
Oct112011

Memetic Defenses Enabled

Comment moderation has been enabled to stem the tide of irrelevant and poorly written commercial solicitations.

Monday
Oct102011

Update on Netflix

Turns out they’re just really bad at business.  Not that I’m displeased with that decision as a customer.

Thursday
Oct062011

"Occupy" Where Now?

The Occupy Wall Street protest and related protests are interesting, but they mostly remind me of my first pithy generalization on this blog.  The protests have garnered some attention, but unless they can be economically or politically disruptive, they won’t get anything done.  As near as I can tell, the protests have not yet had a significant political effect and as far as economic effects go… well, if it’s still “business as usual” for the place allegedly occupied, the “occupation” probably isn’t doing a very effective job.

Wednesday
Sep212011

Netflix Shot First

Netflix’s recent decision to split itself into two businesses (Netflix for streaming, Qwikster for DVDs) has been a source of confusion and consternation all over the web.  Netflix does explain their reasoning, though.  Not in the most recent announcement, but in the announcement of their price change in July:

Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.

Note what’s left out.  For whom does “DVDs as a $2 add on to… streaming” not make sense?  Netflix, not streaming customers.  The other half is more or less accurate, DVD-only customers have several options and may be more price-sensitive.

And why does that not make financial sense?  Presumably, the studios are forcing Netflix to pay per-customer for streaming licenses.  If that’s the case, Netflix might see the scenario this way:  If we split up our customers (most of whom mostly use one method or the other) into two bins, we profit even if they all choose one or the other.  Why?  Because even though they’re now paying 80% of previous, the streaming expenses are cut in half.  Win-win, right?

The risk relates to the fact that there’s a big difference between all-streaming and mostly-streaming.  The convenience of renting a DVD when streaming was not available patched over the lack of streaming selection.  “A $2 add on” might not make financial sense to Netflix, but it makes perfect sense to customers who view it as a patch to a bug that, in their view, is Netflix’s fault.  $2/mo. is low enough to feel “basically free”, $8/mo. is not.  Thus, this move may cause some streaming customers, instead of picking sides, to leave entirely.

Therefore, it should be clear that the price change is not a grab for $6 more per month.  Separating the sites, marring the user-experience and reducing convenience (when this is all about convenience) is a clear anti-feature.  Netflix really wants people to choose sides, and was willing to cut prices to give them an incentive.  And where carrots are insufficient, let the beatings commence!

My guess is that Netflix is in a bit of a catch-22 here.  They can’t fix the selection problem while DVD streaming is an option.  Even if Netflix can convince a studio that they “have to be on Netflix”, the studio can just shrug and say, “So? They’ll just get it on DVD.”  On the other hand, the “have to be on Netflix” argument depends on the popularity of Netflix, which may depend on “DVDs as a $2 add on”, so staking everything on “streaming or nothing” is not without risk.

It’s a dramatic case of business negotiations.  Netflix is trying to convince the studios that they need Netflix to win (quickly) in the streaming video market, then holding itself hostage, threatening to shoot if the studios don’t renegotiate.

More than that:  Netflix shot itself first, and is daring the studios to let it die.

(Context: I’m not a Netflix investor.  I am a Netflix subscriber.  I subscribe to both DVDs and streaming.  Before the split I would have paid the extra money, but now I’ll probably cancel the DVD-by-mail service and keep streaming… for now.)

Monday
Sep192011

Second City Epidemiologist

I watched The Interrupters this weekend, and I second this review, it’s well worth seeing.  The documentary chronicles the front-line agents of the organization CeaseFire, the Violence Interrupters.  CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist who formerly worked for the World Health Organization, and he takes very seriously the analogy of the “violence epidemic”.  The approach is similar:

  1. Identify outbreaks (violent incidents)
  2. Respond at the center with a focus on limiting transmission (discouraging new retaliation by those not already involved)
  3. Build long-term resilience with vaccinations, sanitation, and so on (change norms)

A more comprehensive approach also fits into this analogy:  Infected are quarantined (criminals captured) and treated (rehabilitated) or institutionalized.  CeaseFire’s efforts, though, are mostly focused on the above, particularly step two.

On the non-metaphorical health front, similar efforts have been similarly sucessful.  An example from The Checklist Manifesto was particularly vivid in my mind while watching the movie, a study in which soap was distributed, along with simple instruction on handwashing methods and habits, to impoverished communities.  The results were dramatic.  But those results relied on the cooperation of those participating in the program, and it would be a mistake to assume that their behavior was influenced primarily by the mere availability of soap.  The instruction was also a factor.  But one factor found in follow-up study as to why that program had been more successful than some similar efforts was that the soap used was particularly high quality.  Smelled good, felt good on the hands.  Washing with it was pleasant.

One question for CeaseFire is not just how best to educate about nonviolence, or how to bring social pressure to bear in favor of nonviolence, but how to make nonviolent conflict resolution “smell good”.  (The movie contains some interesting ideas in relation to this question, I think, though it doesn’t address that directly.)

For further reading, see this post on CeaseFire as applied anthropology.  Also related to the topic of violence in Chicago and the source of the title of this post, this blog.

Wednesday
Aug312011

FLY THE PLANE

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, and I still don’t have a full post together.  But I would like to write briefly about a book I read recently, Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto.

In the book, Gawande advocates for the use of checklists as a means of improving outcomes in medicine.  He bases his analysis on three key cases:  The use of coordination checklists to ensure essential communication between the parts of a construction team, the use of “read-do” and “do-confirm” checklists (routine and contingency) in the airline industry (with a particular look at the case of US Airways Flight 1549, the recent “Miracle on the Hudson”), and the design and testing of the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery Checklist.

The book is a great example of popular nonfiction:  The information is interesting, the narrative is compelling, and the argument is sound.  The tradeoffs involved in the WHO’s design process were also interesting to me as an engineer.  A checklist (in this use) isn’t an algorithm for amateurs, but a tool to help someone who already has a great deal of expertise.  The key is to identify the tasks where a reminder is of greatest benefit; maximize the product of the likelihood that a checklist item will avoid a task being missed by the magnitude of the consequences if it is overlooked.  Extremely high-level goals often end up omitted, since they won’t be forgotten in any case.  On the other hand, sometimes important things are easy to forget in crisis situations; the subject line of this post comes from a checklist for restarting a dead jet engine (the result, one hopes, of some embarassing simulator incidents).  When the tasks themselves are unknown, the key is identifying which communication tasks have the highest probability of identifying serious potential problems before they actually occur, so the risk can be mitagated.

If you’re intersted in medicine or engineering or like reading nonfiction in general, read it.

 

Friday
Jul222011

What's the Default?

There’s a lot of talk about the US debt ceiling and whether that will be raised or not by the August 2 deadline.  The odd thing about this is that it’s always framed in terms of an impending default, when it’s not clear that will happen at all.  Especially when that’s expressly prohibited by the US Constitution (Amendment 14, Section 4):

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Clearly, the amendment addresses debt in the context of the Civil War in particular, but it’s not unreasonable to read that as a blanket prohibition on a default on treasury bonds.  So on August 2, absent legislation, we’ll be in the following state:

  1. Congress has said “no more borrowing”.
  2. Congress has determined how money can be printed, and the answer is “not without more borrowing” (money is printed by the Fed and exchanged for new Treasury Bonds).
  3. Congress has specified the amount of taxes to be taken in.
  4. Congress has specified how much is to be spent and on what.  (But it’s a higher amount than the revenues provided for in 2!)
  5. Treasury Bonds specify when they need to be repaid and for how much, and the Constitution says Congress can’t just decide to not pay those.  (There are also a few other obligations the Constitution says Congress can’t decide not to pay, including judicial salaries.)

That’s an odd state, as of yet untested under US law.  Clearly, something’s got to give.  The executive department must faithfully meet conditions 1-5, which is impossible.  The Constitution gives only Congress the authority to alter 1-4, and no one the authority to alter 5.

Since the debt ceiling law and the most recent budget are in some sense contradictory, and Congress is the one with the power to alter those conditions, I think the relevant question is how to interpret the actions of Congress regarding those laws.  I can think of a two reasonable possibilities:

One: The budget implicitly raises the debt ceiling to cover the difference between revenues and expenses, since otherwise that law would be requiring the impossible.  (Bill Clinton seems to take almost this view, but it’s a way better argument to suggest that Congress implicitly loosened 4 than to say the Constitution gives the president the authority to violate 1 in order to fulfill 5.  Both are required by the Constitution, it would be quite an ass-pull to say that Am. 14 Sec. 4 gives additional emergency borrowing powers to the Executive Branch.)

Two: The debt ceiling law, unless explicitly repealed, implicitly limits spending after the debt ceiling is reached to revenues taken in.  The budget didn’t amend that restriction, so the restriction still applies.  Unfortunately, the debt ceiling law doesn’t specify what spending to cut or how that should be decided.  But a reasonable assumption might be that the Executive Branch (the Secretary of the Treasury?) would have the authority.

That puts the power in the right constitutional place:  When Congress passed the last budget, they either intended increased borrowing or decreased spending, they can’t have both.  That’s what should happen.  Of course, it’s not ideal for courts to try to interpret laws that are either overly vague or logically impossible, but it’s not the courts’ fault that Congress failed to do at least one of those in this case.

Some have suggested that the debt ceiling law is unconstitutional because they view all spending as sacrosanct under Am. 14 Sec. 4.  There’s a good take-down of that argument by Professor Lawrence Tribe, here.  His counter-argument is sort of like my second case above, except he doesn’t claim that “bend 4 to satisfy 1-3” is implicit in the budget, he just cites legal precedent.  (I like my argument a bit better, but Tribe’s argument certainly beats Clinton’s, and I’m willing to defer to his expertise.)  I also agree with the caveat on his conclusion:

I do not mean to suggest that, if it becomes necessary for the President to prioritize expenditures, the President is free to use whatever priorities he likes. First, the Constitution itself requires giving some expenditures (such as the payment of judicial salaries, Art. III, § 1, or payments on the public debt, Amdt. XIV, § 4) priority over others. Second, even if circumstances make it impossible for the President to obey the anti-line item veto rule announced in Clinton v. New York, he must do his best to honor the principles animating that rule: namely, using the line item veto to give the President unbounded power over spending would allow the Chief Executive to reward political allies and punish political adversaries. The President may not, for example, prioritize spending in blue states over spending in red states. Within those constitutional boundaries, however, it is up to the President to determine how spending must be prioritized when it becomes impossible to comply with all of the President’s legal obligations simultaneously.

I don’t know if that’s a reasonable prediction of what would actually happen if the debt ceiling failed to be raised.  Obama would have the first move, so if he did something other than prioritize spending, the courts would have to react to that instead.

And it’s not clear that such a “default” (not actually a default!) will happen.  There are still possible ways to avoid that, including congress actually raising the debt ceiling, or harebrained schemes in which Congress restores the “out of power party futilely opposes the debt limit raise” status quo by handing over the raise-the-debt-limit power to the Executive, reserving for Congress enough power to oppose Obama’s decision but not enough to actually succeed.

(Also, if all this media default hullabaloo has you thinking about fleeing to gold or some such, you should find this Moldbug piece interesting.)

Wednesday
Jun012011

A Modern Story of X

Recently, there’s been this human-interest story making the rounds about some parents who have decided not to disclose the gender of their latest child, Storm.  Unsurprisingly to me, the couple in question was influenced by X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, published in 1978.1  I’ve been a fan of that story since I first heard it in middle school and think it makes a good point:  Children don’t need everyone telling them what they should be doing (in relation to gender roles) for them to develop an understanding of who they are.2  In modern American society, at any rate, people care about the gender of young children with an intensity that makes little sense.  I once saw a video in a psych class where parents introduced their infant to strangers by differently gendered names, a small difference which colored the entire interaction so intensely that the resulting film was rather comedic.  What’s in a name, indeed?

However, that’s not the end of that case.  As Reddit commenter Majoribanks notes:

[…] it doesn’t actually sound like they ARE giving their kids such an unbiased choice. It sounds like they really really really want radical genderqueer show-off children to support their own worldview.

I mean, they say this: “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious” but then also this “The boys are encouraged to challenge how they’re expected to look and act based on their sex.”

The two are in direct opposition to each other. These kids don’t go to school, and don’t interact with people outside their family very much or for long amounts of time. Their parents “encouraging” them to “challenge” their gender expectations is basically tantamount to telling them “you should act like girls to please mommy and daddy!” I mean, if their sons ask for a pretty frilly dress and the parents respond with “of course! you look so wonderful in it!” but if they ask for a machine gun they get “do you really want to conform to expectations for boys to be so violent” instead, how is that any sort of meaningful choice?

That phrase seems to explain, to me anyway, why BOTH their sons want to have longer hair and wear pink and purple and glitter, when even their parents have short hair and don’t wear makeup. Most kids who DO play with makeup, girls included, do it because they see their mother and female relatives doing it.

That comment really reminded me of another blog post from earlier this year, written by Heather Soersdal:

So, here’s my mistake: I never should have written the post about my gender conforming kids in response to the posts about the gender nonconforming kids. […] What I know now is that I had no idea of the scope and scale of this my-son-acts-girly blogging phenomenon and just how truly offensive it is. I’m embarrassed to have taken any part in it.

As it turns out, there are a lot of blogs like this. Like, a lot. […]

They all have 2 things in common: they’re all about boys who act feminine, and the boys are all prepubescent and in some cases barely emerging from toddlerhood. Nobody’s concerned with girls who like boy things even though some of them could be gay, too (gasp) and anyone with a copy of What To Expect the Toddler Years ought to know better than to start a career writing about gender nonconformity in a child who is too young even to have any real solid idea of how to be gender conforming.

Girls aren’t an issue because girls acting like boys are considered to be expanding their horizons and even promoting themselves. Femininity in women isn’t assumed to be innate, but learned behavior (see: charm schools, every womens’ magazine ever). Therefore, masculinity in women is not assumed to be innate but as contrived as femininity and possibly semi-rebellious behavior that will probably get her far in life if cripple her chances of getting a husband. Boys acting like girls, however, are immediately assumed to be acting on innate feminine impulses that are probably connected to them wanting to date other boys. Mens’ genders are real, womens’ genders are faked. [… no seriously I’m omitting a lot here …] There’s no need to assume anything about a child’s sexual orientation and if anything there’s a need not to obsess over it. Planning this far into a child’s future simply does not make sense.

However, these parents insist they’re not planning this far into their boys’ futures. They insist and insist and insist on it. Oh, the insisting. They go on about how they know this is not a guarantee of a gay son. They have links all over the sidebar about GLBT causes and titles like “Raising My Rainbow” but don’t you dare forget, they know that this probably doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gay except in BoyGir’s case, where it necessarily definitely means he’s gay and genderqueer. They insist they do not care about whether their sons are gay or transgender. There are really only two conclusions I can think to draw here. Either these parents are struggling with their homophobia and overcompensating for their negative feelings toward their own sons in the same way you might buy an extra special gift for the in-law you hate to prove you don’t hate them, or they just really love the attention, Münchhausen’s style.

[emphasis mine, link also mine]

(I’ll just do that thing I do where after a lengthy quote I tell you to just go and read the whole post anyways.)

Okay, so that end is probably overly harsh, but I don’t think the criticism is inaccurate, or that a similar sort of thing might be going on in this story.  It’s easy (or at the very least, tempting to some) to cross the line between doing the right thing because it’s right and doing the “right” thing so you can wave some sort of political flag before an audience.  If you think that something shouldn’t be a big deal, making the most of the media coverage is probably undermining your point.

1. If that name is a comics pun, that’s quite a groaner.

2. In fact, there’s strong evidence that “confusing” someone about their gender identity is really hard.

Monday
May092011

Oh When the Sluts / Come Marching In

In Boston last weekend, this happened.  And I was there.

The Boston SlutWalk was a response to the Toronto SlutWalk, which in turn was a response to a member of the Toronto police, who at a workshop on security York University college said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

People found that annoying for several obvious reasons:

  1. “Like sluts” is a surprisingly fickle term, and that bit of advice reduces rather easily to a claim that women should be inconspicuous or else.
  2. It’s stated in a way that’s overly simplistic: In fact, that advice would only apply to a small minority of rape or sexual assault cases (and even in the cases where it does apply, one wonders if there’s something self-fulfilling about law enforcement officers making statements like that, in terms of undermining legal deterrents).
  3. That sort of advice pushes focus away from solutions that discourage perpetrators in absolute terms (non-zero-sum solutions that make life harder for perpetrators if followed by anyone, instead of just making one person a less-obvious target as compared to someone else).
  4. Such advice is particularly troubling in the context of a crime where perpetrators do escape justice based on victim-blaming judges and juries, and particularly troubling coming-from law enforcement.

As always with such decentralized activism, the message of the march was a little incoherent.  However, the speech given by Jaclyn Friedman at the end of the march was an amazing and coherent piece of rhetoric, and you should read it here.  The key bit:

[…] make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.

There’s a word for all of this. And that word is bullshit. But there’s also a phrase for it: social license to operate. What that means is this: we know that a huge majority of rapes are perpetrated by a small minority of guys who do it again and again. You know why they’re able to rape an average of 6 times each? Because they have social license to operate. In other words: because we let them. Because as a society, we say “oh well, what did she expect would happen if she went back to his room? What did she expect would happen walking around by herself in that neighborhood? What did she expect would happen dressed like a slut?” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the question is what happens in the minds of bystanders, when they’re looking for a rationalization for not intervening in an ambiguous or sketchy situation?  What happens in the minds of jurors, when they’re looking for a reason not to convict?  Those may well be the same essentially-random people who see or hear about such “awareness-raising” activism.

Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer discusses the SlutWalk here and argues with some detractors who frame it as an effort to reclaim the word ‘slut’, and he makes an interesting point:

In their op-ed SlutWalk is Not Sexual Liberation, Dines and Murphy assert that

… the focus on “reclaiming” the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.

[…]

What Dines and Murphy share with the Toronto cop is a sense that women are fools for demanding a level sexual playing field with men. Like so many of my colleagues on the “anti-porn” wing of feminism, Dines and Murphy tend to mistrust (or ignore) young women’s efforts to pursue pleasure. Their concerns about premature sexualization are legitimate, and I share them. But I think they seriously underestimate young women’s potential to negotiate their way from unwanted sexualization to healthy, empowered sexual agency. That kind of journey can’t take place alone, of course. And that’s part of what the SlutWalk movement is about: creating a safe space for women to come together in public defiance of those who would define their sexuality for them. [his emphasis removed, mine added]

I agree with Schwyzer.  Though I’d say that last bit doesn’t just apply to women.

Sunday
Apr102011

More Than Meats the Eye

There’s more going on here than you might think:

 

That video is from a YouTube show called EpicMealTime, there’s an entire line of such videos.  See also thisiswhyyourefat, the Heart Attack Grill, the ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuud subreddit, etc., etc.

A few thoughts:

1. Competitive feasting has deep historical roots.  It’s hypothesized to be one of the reasons for the transition between hunting-gathering and agriculture.  Starving hunter-gathers presumably would not turn to agriculture, since that means burying grain instead of eating it and staying in a food-poor area instead of moving.  However, moving from gathering to horticulture to agriculture could be a way of turning a current surplus into a future even-bigger surplus at the expense of being tied down and vulnerable to future famine.

2. Robin Hanson is a fan of explaining modern trends in terms of the tendency of high-status industrialists/agriculturalists to live according to forager norms instead of farmer norms.  But he points out a hole in his hypothesis:

I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

While this hypothesis may seem natural, I must point out that it has a gaping hole: it is far from obvious why the cultural pressures that made foragers act like farmers should weaken when folks get rich.  Yes poor farmers may have few other options, while rich folks have the luxury of acting more like foragers. But rich farmers could have instead used their wealth to act like hyper-farmers, moving even further from forager styles. Why exactly did rich farmers act more like foragers?

I wonder if competitive eaters lean more politically conservative or liberal than seemingly-similar individuals?

3. Is the kind of competitive feasting I highlight hyper-farmer or hyper-forager?  Well, forager modes of competitive feasting tend to allow high-status individuals to accumulate further status without them accumulating further material control or wealth.

Of course, not all the examples above are the same.  In the case of EMT, I suppose it depends on how the social pressures on Harley Morenstein and the other hosts work as they gain more wealth.  If it results in a dramatic increase in their personal income, agriculturalist.  If it results in the show containing ever larger / more expensive / more dramatically produced meals in such a way that it precludes extraordinary accumulation of wealth by the hosts, forager.

On the other hand, the structure of the feast is more agriculturalist (the “big man” is paying to obtain raw materials up front and people are (essentially) paying him for the result). And pretty much all the distribution of funds is going directly to industrial agriculture.  Distribution of actual food isn’t involved.

And no way a forager is going to get their hands on that much bacon per person.

4. Given the low price of many high-calorie food items, excessive food is in many cases very clearly framed as a celebration of “low culture”.  It hardly fits in with the “eats a healthier and well-varied” diet that’s the first item in Hanson’s description of foragers.  On the other hand, the exaggerated or ironic celebration of low culture is very SWPL.

No idea how to fit that into the farmer norms vs. forager norms framing.

5. Getting back to point 3, countering the accumulation of all wealth in the hands of a few high-status individuals is kind of key if you want to have a stable society.  Modern civilization has dealt with this almost entirely by expanding frontiers (or in globalization terms, “developing new markets”).  But we’re running kind of short on frontiers at the moment, and the need for labor is lower than ever due to technology.

Arguably, foreign aid programs are a sort of competitive feasting.  They redistribute wealth to accumulate status, both of which promote stability.  Given the role of food prices in recent revolutions (past and ongoing), that’s not been terribly effective.