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The Expert Problem October 30, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, politics, society.
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My current DC Metro book is “Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb—a full report is coming when I finish. The Black Swan theory says that history is largely a product of low-probability, high-impact, unpredictable events—think fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11, Facebook—and that bell-curve events are low-impact essentially by virtue of their predictability. There are several interesting and counter-intuitive conclusions that fall out of the BS theory. One is that “book” smarts are often useless—even dangerous—in the real world because the artificially simplified world of the academy often prejudices one to believe that he understands the world more than he does, to underestimate the unknown and its effects, and to willfully ignore risk. Another is that fields that are fundamentally dynamic and prone to exogenous influences also fundamentally resist expertise—only static, self-contained fields can have true experts. Physics lends itself to expertise—it’s a closed system and the rules don’t change over time. So does brain surgery. And plumbing. But economics doesn’t have experts—economists are only slightly and insignificantly better than non-economists at predicting future economic events. Neither does politics. Nor business. Nor, fundamentally, can any discipline that deals with human subjects. The famous adage that “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is trivially both true and false. It’s trivially false because history never exactly repeats itself, even in microcosm. The same social and techonolgical context never comes up twice, nor does the exact sequence of external events. It’s trivially true because in a rough sense even those who do know history are doomed to repeat it, insofar as history repeats” itself. Knowledge of historical events does not help much in predicting the future. And you laugh dismissively when I tell you that I could run the Eagles or be a decent Senator! Well, I don’t know about the Eagles, but I would certainly be a better Senator than some of the yahoos who will appear on actual ballots this coming Tuesday. You don’t need to know much about the theory and history of politics and economics to be an effective legislator. Theory—which doesn’t capture large unpredictable events—and history—which never repeats—exactly are largely irrelevant in determining whether a given piece of legislation will achieve its desired effect.

The political “expert problem” is interesting in light of the alarming number of (Republican) candidates for national political office who are ignorant and seemingly proud of it. I parenthesized Republican because all the ignorant candidates I can think of are Republican. Christine “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” O’Donnell. Ron “This election is not about ‘details’” Johnson. Sharron “I can’t spell Sharon” Angle. If BS is right and deep knowledge may be as much a hindrance to legislative and governance success as a pre-requisite, then maybe TEApublicans are on to something. Maybe Samantha would make a kick-ass Senator.

Nah! Taleb downplays domain-specific knowledge in some domains but not the process of acquiring knowledge or the tools used in acquiring it—intelligence, curiosity, and skepticism. Deep reserves of knowledge are rarely helpful in dealing with a given economical-political situation, what is helpful is the ability to gather information specific to the situation at hand, to weed out low-order details, and to weigh outcomes of different strategies.
While Team Christine certainly lacks domain specific knowledge—at least in constitutional law although perhaps not in other domains—she also lacks the tools to deal with real-world situations. All she has is doe eyes, white teeth, and Sunday-school dogma.

The ironic thing about the “I didn’t go to Yale! I’m YOU!” campaign is that it actually proves Christine’s point. What Christine is hopefully trying to say is that she didn’t have the opportunity to go to Yale because she isn’t an old-boy/old-money elitist like her opponent Chris Coons. But whereas old-boy/old-money may describe Yale of the 1950s, Yale of the 1990s has need-blind admission policies and enrolls more women than men. Christine didn’t go to Yale because she wouldn’t have gotten close to getting in if she tried. By saying “I didn’t go to Yale” Christine may as well be saying “I’m not intelligent!” and by saying it with the tone that suggests “I wouldn’t want to go to Yale even if I could!” she is effectively saying “I don’t want to be a Senator!”

Christine, what do you think the Senate is if not Yale 2.0? The point of Yale is not to learn more than you would learn at Fairleigh Dickinson or the Claremont Institute or Wilfred Beauty Academy or wherever it is you went, it’s to get to hang out with other people smart enough to get into Yale! Christine, you are obviously ignorant. But that’s not your biggest problem. The biggest problem is that you lack the mental tools and desire to overcome your ignorance to suit the situation. What is the last book you read? Facebook? Could you give a specific action item for any one of your issues? A cap-and-trade system is a “market-based” approach to the energy problem—do you favor that? How many points behind Coons are you polling? What’s four plus two? By the way, the answer to the last question is 6. And to the one before that is 18. Which thankfully means that after Tuesday, we will never hear from you again.

Unfortunately, we might still hear from Mr. Johnson—leading stalwart Russ Feingold by an incomprehensible six points—and Ms. Angle—ahead of majority leader by four points, albeit in a beaten-down state like Nevada. I understand the anti-incumbent backlash. I don’t agree with it but I understand where it comes from. But anti-incumbent does not equal pro-idiot! How did we as a society get to a place where a large swath of us values ignorance over erudition? Blind faith over intellectual curiosity? Claremont Institute—which by the way is a conservative think tank, not a college—over Yale Law? If you had to have brain surgery—or even a root canal—would you like to be treated by Christine O’Donnell or Chris Coons? If you were on trial and facing the death penalty—or even six months in Martha Stewart-ville—would you want to be defended by Sharron Angle or Harry Reid? How did we get to a place where we value intelligence and competence in most places except for politics? How did we get to a place where we simultaneously scream about the incompetence of government but fawn over clearly clueless politicians? People, we have huge problems. Now is not the time to be putting crackpots and morons in Congress! An ignorant doctor can kill a few people. An ignorant politician, properly placed, can actually do a lot more damage than that.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go restore sanity! Woot!

P.S. This post was partially inspired by Anne Applebaum’s “Rise of the ‘Ordinary’ Elite.” The piece describes a new kind of populism which is not “anti-elite”, but “anti-elite-education.” Its targets are not the old-money, old-boy elite but the new, upwardly mobile, self-made elite. Working-class to White House elites like the Obamas. The piece is interesting precisely because of the angle it avoids—racism! Applebaum may not want to touch this subject because she likes her job at the Washington Post, but I have no such problems and I will touch most things. Merit-based elite education is the great equalizer. It’s the “in” to the circle of national politics and power. What could be worse if you are an ignorant white person than to see a black family use that vehicle to get into the passing lane and blow by you. While elite education was the privilege of privilege, you could always pretend that “you could have been a contender” if only you were born to the right parents. That elite status was not fairly earned and—by juxtaposition your non-elite status—was not your fault. But now that elite education is open to all and you still can’t get a sniff, you have no one to blame but your ignorant self and perhaps your ignorant parents. And given this what could be a more transparent self-preservation strategy than to pretend that elite education doesn’t matter anyways? And that you wouldn’t avail yourself of it if you tried? Who do you think you’re fooling other than ignorant people like yourself? Pfffft.

Hot, Flat, Crowded, and Taxed October 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, clean energy, climate, energy efficiency, sustainability, taxes, weird.
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One of my favorite parts of my temporary new job is the commute. It’s between 30 and 40 minutes each way, but all on public transportation. This not only gives me the moral authority to browbeat people about their energy consumption—I’m not part of the problem! I use public transportation! My carbon footprint is only 12 times that of an average Indian, not 14 times!—it also gives me time to read in relative peace and while I am more or less awake. In fact, I am somewhat surprised by the relatively small number of people that read on the Metro. On any given day, I would say that fewer than 20% of the people on the Metro are reading, and most of those are reading that free magazine you can get as you come into the station. What are the other 80% doing? 20% are texting. 20% are listening to iPods. 20% are staring blankly into space. 19% staring blankly into space, listening to their iPods, texting in one hand, and holding the Metro newspaper in the other. 1% are trying to extricate themselves from the Metro doors.

The first book I read entirely on the Metro was Tom Friedman’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded.” I won’t rehash Friedman’s thesis—the best thing America can do for itself and the world is to go seriously Green—Friedman does that just fine. I did want to say three things about the book though. First, I love that the cover is sampled from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch. Look no further than GoED for proof that they had very good psychotropes even in the 15th century! With publishing margins as slim as they are these days—although perhaps not for bankable stars like Friedman—why pay for cover art? Sample a renaissance painting for free!

Second, one of the things that struck me about “World Is Flat”—HF&C’s predecessor—was Friedman’s own itinerary. Bangalore. Shanghai. Doha. Copenhagen. Sao Paolo. Back to Bangalore. The most frequent refrain in WiF is “I just kept on moving.” Readers of Philly Bluejay know how I feel about business air travel. Friedman may fly more than any person on the planet! This was bad in an absolute sense but not hypocritical in the context of the book—WiF is about globalization. But HF&C is about climate and the Energy Era and yet the itinerary is similar. London. Mumbai. Dalian. Multiple visits to every continent except for Antarctica. I hope Mr. Friedman purchased carbon offsets for all of those air miles! Now, if you will excuse me, I have to fly to San Francisco. For business. Tom, I kid because I love. And because I am a hypocrite.

Third and finally, I want to elaborate on Friedman’s point about the necessity of a carbon tax. One of Friedman’s sub-points is that a clean energy revolution will never truly take off without a clear, loud, consistent and projectable price signal on carbon. The market will not move away from carbon—at least not efficiently and at scale—unless they know what staying with carbon will cost and unless that price is sufficiently high. Short of privatizing the atmosphere, the fastest way to create this signal is by government regulation. And here he advocates a carbon tax over cap-and-trade. Friedman views cap-and-trade as a kind of “hidden ball” trick—a way for the government to limit emissions in a way that does not result in direct costs for consumers or a direct trail of money back to itself. In a perfect world, the government hands out emissions credits, electric utilities buy and sell them amongst themselves and customers don’t see increased rates, and when they do, they don’t see that money going to the government. Friedman claims that this kind of shenanigan hides the true urgency of the problem from people—people are not going to change their habits unless they see how their actions translate directly into costs. I agree. Wholeheartedly. But I think that a better and more accurate way to state this problem is that a cap-and-trade system isn’t an effective price signaling mechanism because it doesn’t behave like a traditional price!

A price is a constant. The price of the first unit of is the price of the millionth unit. With a price, cost is always proportional to consumption and you can safely map out the future. Not so with cap-and-trade. With cap-and-trade, the price of a unit purchased under the cap is far less—perhaps infinitely less—than that of a unit purchased over the cap. And whether a unit is over or under depends on overall demand, not on your demand. Which system do you reckon would be more conducive to economic growth? “Neither” is not an option!

Meanwhile, the real commodity here is not electricity—or even coal—it’s CO2. It’s easy enough to create a cap-and-trade system for coal or electricity. A CO2-emissions-from-coal exchange would consist of a relatively small number of individually large participants. A cap-and-trade makes some sense in this case. But oil companies do not operate like utilities and so the CO2-emissions-from-gasoline effectively consists of millions of small participants. Cap-and-trade is logistically much more difficult here! And remember, if cap-and-trade were a true pricing mechanism than it would be possible to trade gasoline emissions for electricity emissions. Anything short of a holistic economy-wide cap-and-trade will effectively create a market distortion, effectively subsidizing uncapped sources of emissions at the expense of capped ones. Market distortion—specifically, implicit subsidies for carbon emissions—is how we got ourselves in this mess to begin with!

Perhaps Tom and I can discuss these points en route to Sacramento. Or maybe at the checkout counter at the Whole Foods on River Road. Tom, Text me!

P.S. The cover art of HF&C contains several images from the Paradise and Earth panels of GoED, but none—as far as I can tell—from the Hell panel. Was this intentional? A better cover would have had a sample from “Paradise” on top and “Hell” on the bottom. No?

P.P.S. Another suitable cover for HF&C—although not renaissance and likely not royalty free either—would have been a pair of paintings by neo-Bosch Salvador Dali. Butterfly windmills on top and that-painting-with-a-giraffe-on-fire-which-I-swear-is-by-Dali-but-I-can’t-find-a-link-for-so-now-I-don’t-know on the bottom.

P.P.P.S. Wonder if the Taliban puts this on their recruiting posters.

P.P.P.P.S. If you drop something on an escalator, never shoot your hand down to try to catch it while it’s falling. I’m just saying.

An Open Letter to Rick Sanchez October 6, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in media, society, sports, television.
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Rick,

Can I call you Rick? You don’t know me from Adam and I don’t know you from Jonathan Leibowitz. I’ve never watched Rick’s List and I guess I never will now. Actually, I don’t watch any CNN. Not even 360 despite the fact that Anderson Cooper is a fellow Bull. I don’t even know where CNN is down here in the 20816. Not that I watch Comedy Central either. I get my television news from MSNBC, Joe in the morn—sadly I have to leave before Chuck and Savannah come on—Ed or Rachel or Matthews or O’Donnell in the eve. You see, I like my news with a heavy liberal slant but only 40% sarcasm, not 98%.

Rick, you got on my radar last week when CNN fired you for calling Jonathan Leibovitz a bigot and claiming that Jews are not a true minority a la Hispanics. You weren’t even on CNN at the time, you were a guest on a radio show. A sattelite radio show fagadsakes! The same radio service that broadcasts Howard Stern! No matter. You were out on the street the next day. That was wrong, Rick. Not what you said. Although that was also wrong. And ignorant. But firing you for it was wrong too. And vindictive. And petty. A reprimand, a public apology, and a week off the air would have sufficed. You are not the first member of the national media to make an inappropriate remark and you won’t be the last. CNN was wrong to make an example of you. It was a bully move. Bush league.

Rick, your parents fled Cuba when you were two years old. They came to America to give you a better life. In Cuba, you can’t look sideways at a picture of Fidel Castro without getting thrown in the slammer. Or worse. In America, we have the First Amendment! Here, you can say whatever you want! You can say that Michael J Fox is faking Parkinson’s. You can say that a presidential candidate attended a madrassa. You can shout “baby killer” during a congressional debate. You can say that former presidents committed war crimes when they ordered nuclear attacks on Japan. You can even say that another country has WMD’s as pretext for attacking them, kill thousands of American soldiers and foreign civilians, and plunge the country into debt we may never recover from—hypothetically, of course, no one would ever really do such a thing. In America, Rick, you can say whatever you want …

… except you can’t make fun of minorities. Even ones that aren’t disadvantaged. It’s not nice. It’s not politically correct. You can get sued. You can’t insult hispanics—although you can deport them! God help you if you mock blacks—see Imus, Don—and no it doesn’t matter that we have a black president. And, whatever you do, under no circumstances are you to defame, denigrate, or otherwise dis Jews! I mean, Jews control the banks, the media, and White House staff in this country! If you go after one of them, you are going down! You send one of theirs to the hospital, they send you to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way!

So, I’m sorry Rick. I myself am Jewish and I wasn’t offended by what you said about my people. I actually thought it was kind of funny. And really, something can’t be funny if it’s not also true. But funny has nothing to do with it. Sarcasm is for the news. Not for candid interviews on pay radio. You crossed the unspoken line and you got whacked. But don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get picked up by FOX “news” in a few days.

Sincerely,

-Amir

P.S. Perhaps CNN firing you was karmic payback for the hit-and-run in 1990. How did you get away with that anyways? I know you were driving back from a football game, but were you actually playing in it?

P.P.S. Rick, the following P.S.’s are not directed to you, but rather to my six loyal readers. And to whoever Googles Rick Sanchez and scrolls to the 20th page of hits.

P.S. Red October 2.0 started in Phine Phashion with Roy Hallady no-hitting the Cincinnatti Reds! It can only go down from here! There is much to like about Roy. He’s a non-complainer—10 years and 280+ starts in Toronto with not a sniff of the postseason and not a single complaint. He’s a throwback horse—more complete games than any other National League team. And he possesses a filthy arsenal—then again, as far as I can tell, the 80 mph batting cage pitching machine does too—the second pitcher to throw two no-hitters in the same season. But he has a bad nickname—Doc. Presumably after Wyatt Earp sidekick John “Doc” Holliday. Don’t get me wrong, Doc works. Halladay isn’t spelled quite right—perhaps Matt Holliday should sue Roy for the rights to Doc—but most baseball fans can’t spell anyways. And it gives us “re DOC tober.” Alas, it’s already taken. By Dwight Gooden. Who legally changed his name to Doc by the way. And you just can’t recycle bigtime nicknames, no matter how well they fit. It’s wrong. There is only one Babe, one Wizard, one Sandman, one Rocket, one Kid, one A-Rod, one Hebrew Hammer, two Pudge’s and two Whitey’s. And only one Doc. Roy needs a new nickname! Maybe a play on another famous Holliday—Billie? Matt? Jrue? Perhaps a play on the word holiday—Happy Halladay? High Halladay? Federal Halladay? Or maybe a play on Doc—most doctors are specialists today—the cardiologist? the podiatrist? the proctologist? the gynecologist? I got it—”the dentist!” After all, that’s how John Holliday became “Doc.” Red entistober everyone!

P.P.S. The Andy Reid/Donovan McNabb/Kevin Kolb/Michael Vick tetrahedron spins on! Week 4: Washington at Philly. The hype. The drama. The anticipation. The clock mismanagement! Michael Vick is out with torn rib cartilage—I broke a rib snow-boarding two years ago and couldn’t sleep for six weeks much less play professional football, of course I couldn’t really play professional football even when perfectly healthy but that’s besides the point—and castoff 2.0 Kevin Kolb is back in! Andy Reid immediately announces that Vick will start as soon as he is healthy—because of course you can’t lose your job to injury—unless of course, Mike Kafka looks really good running the scout team this week! Anyways, Donovan McNabb exacts sweet revenge on the Eagles by being the worst quarterback on the field but leading the Redskins to an upset by “establishing the running game,” “throwing only one interception,” “trusting his defense,” and “using Jedi mind tricks to coax another all-time brain-fart from Andy.” Actually, you don’t need any Jedi mind tricks for that.