International Relations As Kabuki Theater
September 27, 2009, 6:09 pm
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Iran would like to have nuclear weapons. This is obvious. Heck, if I were Iran, I would like to have nuclear weapons. But Iran has to pretend to only be seeking nuclear energy, to avoid serious (not phony/half-hearted, which she can deal with, and which is fine) international rebuke.

Of course, the international community, and in particular President Obama, and most of the left, doesn’t care whether Iran gets nuclear weapons. In some cases lefties would prefer Iran to have nuclear weapons than not (that would deter the evil United States from attacking her, you see). But they have to pretend to care whether Iran gets nuclear weapons, and pretend to be trying to stop it, so as not to appear weak and lose at the polls.

In some ways this is a fascinating little kabuki dance. Both sides believe and know and in a way even desire to arm the nation-state of Iran with nuclear weapons. Yet both sides put on a show designed to misdirect. Iran: “We’re not trying to get nukes!” UN/internationalists: “We’re trying really hard to stop Iran from getting nukes, and besides, she’s not even working on nukes in the first place.” Both sides winking at each other.

Who are they trying to misdirect? Regular American citizens.

Why does it so often seem like the focus of so much international relations is to pull the wool over the eyes of regular American citizens?

Blogging, AI, Viruses, and the Voight-Kampff Machine
September 20, 2009, 6:14 pm
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In some ways reading someone’s blog is like creating an artificial intelligence. I have never met “Matthew Yglesias” for example. I do not know this person (assuming he exists) and presumably never will. What I have done is sampled perhaps hundreds of examples of his thought processes and beliefs, by reading his blog posts. Over time, this has allowed me to build a fairly accurate picture of what “Matthew Yglesias” thinks. In a sense, I have been, through trial and error, building an AI version of “Matthew Yglesias” in my head.

For a time, I was a fairly avid reader of his blog. This has trickled away to the point where I basically don’t read him any more. Why? Because there’s no point. Through practice and observation, the “Matthew Yglesias AI” in my head has gotten so accurate that I can basically predict what he will think and say about virtually anything with 99.9% accuracy. So, there’s no longer any reason to read his actual posts: they no longer give me new information. For a while I did try to go back from time to time but it became so rare to encounter a “Matthew Yglesias” post that contradicted what my head-version of “Matthew Yglesias” already thought that it just wasn’t worth my time, and I started wondering why I was doing it. So I stopped.

According to this model of blog-reading, one will read a blog more if the blogger says interesting and fresh things, and less if the blogger continues to say the same thing over and over again. After all, the latter type of blogging is easy to model as an AI in your own head. Once that AI gets sufficiently good, you’d naturally lose interest in the actual blog.

So to keep readers it would seem above all else that a blogger needs to stay fresh and unpredictable. Note this is different from the usual interpretation of blogging which is that blogs are just ‘echo chambers’ people visit to have their opinions affirmed back at them. That may be the case for some blogs, but not for the sorts of blogs I tend to like. Even if I agree with a blogger about stuff, I’ll still lose interest if he becomes too predictable – too easy to model in my head as an AI.

In a sense the blogger’s challenge is to pass something like the “Turing test”, or Voight-Kampff machine, to prove to readers that he is not an AI. When a blogger becomes too AI-like, readers will just learn to build their own AI-versions of the blogger. Then why read? Just consult the AI. I can no longer tell the difference between Matthew Yglesias and the AI “Matthew Yglesias” I’ve built in my own head, so I no longer use the former.

On the flip side, one might take a more optimistic view and just say that Matthew Yglesias has succeeded in implanting his thought-programming in others, including myself. Before, I had no “Matthew Yglesias” AI in my head, then I started reading him, and now I do. If I ever want to know what Matthew Yglesias might think about something, my head-“Yglesias” will tell me (and will probably be right). I’ve been infected with “Yglesias”, it seems. And maybe that’s the goal of blogging, to infect others with your thoughts. Maybe being easy-to-model-as-an-AI is a feature not a bug, because people learn faster what you’re about.

I’ve read Tyler Cowen for years and years, after all, and I still can’t quite figure out what the heck he’s about. Which is probably why I keep reading.

September 19, 2009, 6:56 pm
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I’ll say it again:


I’m getting sick and tired of people who can’t tell the difference and use them interchangeably. They are being stupid, ignorant, or fricking liars. The only question is which.

The Ebert Threshold
September 19, 2009, 1:23 am
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One favorite set of punching-bags when it comes to amateur-diagnosing the causes of The Financial Crisis (tm/2008) are the rating agencies (Moody’s, S&P, Fitch). In this beloved storyline, everything was just fine, but the rating agencies got too much in bed with the banks, or all simultaneously made bad computer models, or something, and gave too many AAA ratings, and that caused a huge portion of the trouble. The moral of the story, supposedly, is Better Regulation And Oversight Of The Rating Agencies.

Let’s try an analogy.

Suppose Congress codified it into law that movie theaters could charge twice as much for any movie that Roger Ebert gave ‘three stars’ or higher. In other words, Roger Ebert – the movie critic – is specifically mentioned in the bill, and given a sort of official, government-approved fiscal power to help determine movie-ticket prices by the sheer force of his proclamations.

First off: wouldn’t that be freaking ridiculous? Yet that’s what we have done with The Rating Agencies. Their proclamation that a security is “AAA”, for example, affects the legal capital requirements needed to be held against it. This fact alone is pretty much the only reason that “CDOs” even exist.

But back to the Ebert rule. Okay, so if the movie gets 2.5 stars or lower, you can charge $10; 3 stars or above, you can charge $20. Now along comes some enterprising theater owner who takes Transporter 2 (2.5 stars), splices a half hour of Schindler’s List (4 stars) onto the end of it, and calls the resulting 2-hour film a 3-star “movie” (on average). Now he can charge $20 per 2-hour bloc instead of only $10 for every 1.5-hour bloc, which is a nice improvement from his point of view.

This begins to happen more and more. Movies are spliced and diced just to get above the Ebert Threshold. Four-star movies are cut off by 25% and called three-star movies for the same price (to watch the last 25% you have to buy another ticket). Finally, movie studios start getting in bed with Ebert and sending him kickbacks, leading to Star inflation. People complain about all this. “This is absurd!” they say. And it is.

Now, the interesting question is why it’s absurd. I’m not sure there’s a right answer and there seem to be two general schools of thought:

1. It’s absurd because Roger Ebert shouldn’t be allowed to just give four-stars to any movie. Or to get kickbacks from movie studios. Generally, there needs to be better and stricter oversight of Roger Ebert. He should be called before a Congressional subcommittee. Meanwhile, there should be tighter controls, and more complicated mathematical formulas, regarding how a “three-star-on-average movie” can be created. Not just any movie can be sliced and diced like that. Some independent body should do some stress-testing of their own, perhaps, hiring the best PhD statisticians to build models of Movie Quality. Maybe the theater owner should be required to fill out more forms, pay some fees, take some licensing exams, etc. An independent regulatory body, with Presidential appointees ratified by Cognress, could be set up to oversee all this.

2. It was just absurd to give Roger Ebert’s movie reviews the force of law in the first place.

Back to The Financial Crisis, seems to me that the people who go around saying ‘the rating agencies need better oversight! that’s the whole problem!’ are Type 1 People. They see a problem that was created by a weird, bizarre regulation and think the answer is better regulation. In my view this sets up an inevitable game of whack-a-mole as inevitably Clever Regulation N+1 becomes necessary to patch up the holes people have found in Clever Regulation N, but whatever.

I guess it’s obvious I’m more of a Type 2 Person myself. I really don’t understand the Type 1 mentality at all. But maybe that’s just me. Like I said, there are no right answers here. Both approaches 1 and 2 are equally rational and defensible.


On Pretending To Like Kanye
September 16, 2009, 6:37 am
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The one saving grace about this moronic action by Kanye West (HT mkfreeberg) is that I presume we’ll stop having to see the sorry spectacle of all American politicians regularly pretending to really like the music of Kanye West.

I really can’t even begin to understand when or why or how but sometime earlier this decade it seemed to have been decided in some smoky Masonic backroom that Kanye West, of all people, was ‘the cool musician for politicians to pretend to like’. Some focus group or other must have really registered spikes when politicians said ‘Kanye West’, that’s all I can figure. He’s hip hop, but it was a safe kind of hip hop, he’s black, but he’s not black black like Ice Cube or somebody. (I gather. I have actually never knowingly or voluntarily heard a single piece of music, or whatever it is, made by Kanye West.)

So anyway, now instead of doing all that Kanye West name-dropping, it seems that politicians will try to get mileage out of doing some good old fashioned craven, calculated Sister Souljah’ing of the guy. Not much of an improvement, I guess, but I’ll take it.

Thank God For Bankruptcy
September 16, 2009, 5:14 am
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Something you often hear in the health care debate is people declaring that no one should have to go bankrupt just to pay a large unexpected health-care cost.

Not to sound flippant, but when should people go bankrupt then? Never?

Bankruptcy is a cushion society provides for precisely those times when you find yourself disastrously underwater. Bankruptcy isn’t the worst thing in the world that can happen to a person. Donald Trump has gone bankrupt, maybe even more than once (not sure). Bankruptcy is not death, it was actually the humanitarian solution to an age-old problem. Other solutions society has tried: slavery, indentured servitude, debtors’ prisons….

To focus on bankruptcy as if it’s a fate worse than death is an error. It is to mistake the bandage for the wound. The bandage may look ugly and nobody wants a bandage but in the final analysis it is a method of fixing some other, underlying damage. And when there is damage, bandage is better than no bandage!

When someone is faced with the sort of disastrously-expensive health-care cost that compels them to declare bankruptcy, it’s because they got real sick or got real hurt, and yet modern hardworking doctors have fixed them up well enough that they’re still alive to complain about things like bankruptcy. Well I say in such cases thank God for bankruptcy. The alternatives are not better.

All It Is
September 16, 2009, 4:34 am
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Blackhawk Down:

When I go home people’ll ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?” You know what I’ll say? I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand that it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.

Oddly enough, this is often how I feel about my job….


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