December 31, 2013

The Shadowy Sufi of Saylorsburg

Last weekend I briefly mentioned the post-ṣūfī Muslim holy man in Pennsylvania whose cult followers are becoming the new Deep State of Turkey. But when I dug further into the story, it exploded into something resembling my own personalized Umberto Eco novel. You know those kids' books: Choose Your Own Adventure? Well this is like if I had my own Choose Your Own Lattice of Coincidence. From my new column in Taki's Magazine:
As 2014 dawns, the world continues to keep me furnished with material. For example, the current political shakeup in Turkey turns out to be a mashup of various obsessions and hobbyhorses of mine, such as byzantine conspiracy theories, test prep, the naiveté of American education reform, immigration fraud, the deep state, and even the Chechen Bomb Brothers’ Uncle Ruslan. 
This lattice of coincidence begins with Turkey’s prime minister Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, who is presently besieged by graft scandals following police raids on his inner circle. 
With Turkey’s traditional ruling class—the secularist Kemalist generals—finally neutralized by the Ergenekon show trial, the Muslim civilian factions now appear to be plotting against each other. It is widely assumed among Turkish conspiracy theorists (i.e., roughly 98% of all Turks) that the prosecutorial assault on the prime minister was at the behest of Erdoğan’s former political ally, Fethullah Gülen, a powerful and mysterious Muslim cult leader holed up since 1999 in Saylorsburg in the Poconos, where he has become America's largest operator of charter schools.

Read the whole thing there. It's pretty fun, and I don't think I've gotten to the bottom of this yet.

Hottest high tech startup ideas of 2014

In recent years, Silicon Valley fortunes have been made by taking yesterday's depressing ways to eke out a few bucks -- taking in lodgers, hacking a gypsy cab, selling your possessions, etc. -- and giving them a 21st Century gloss. For example, Lyft and Uber would appear to be taxicab companies that employ you to use your own car, not theirs, to pick up strangers and drive them around. But Uber spokespersons deny that, explaining that Uber is actually a "ride-sharing smartphone app," so it's, like, awesome. Plus, Uber has an ironic name. 

Similarly, airBnB enables you to turn your home into a boarding house. But, while you are scrubbing the toilet after your latest paying guest has departed, you can console yourself that some guys in Silicon Valley have made a fortune off this, so it's actually much more glamorous and buzzworthy than it might appear at the moment from your perspective (on your knees in front of your second bathroom's toilet bowl).

So, what are some moneymaking opportunities for 2014? The basic idea of the 21st Century is to take the most dismal economic modes of the past and put them on the latest technology. For example, the Sand State subprime mortgage boom of the last decade was basically Porfirio Diaz-era Mexican debt peonage amped up by putting all the contracts on computers so that Countrywide sales reps could ensnare the great-grandchildren of Zapata's followers in real time.

Here are some ideas for 2014's hottest mobile apps:

3Balls -- Need some quick cash? Why sell your prized possessions on eBay when you can use them as collateral for a loan? This app turns your smartphone into a Pawnshop in Your Pocket!

Lack-E -- Have you always dreamed of a week-long Vegas blowout? Now it can be yours! Imagine: a huge suite at the Trump Hotel Las Vegas, SUV limo, hookers, cocaine, everything you've ever wanted. And you don't have to pay one red cent. When it's over, you just become Mr. Trump's indentured servant for the next seven years. (Three day / four year packages are also available).

The Dickens -- Can't get a loan because you've gone bankrupt before? Feel like you have no collateral to offer? Don't be so unimaginative! You still have something to put on the line: your physical freedom. In this disruptive twist on the old tried and true motivational technique of debtor's prison, your banker permanently straps your GPS-equipped smartphone to your ankle. If you are late on a payment, your lender activates it and you simply never leave your house until your debts are paid off by your relatives. (When you think about it, don't they owe you?) Comes with a HuluPlus subscription so you can catch up on your Binge TV watching. (What happens if you try to sneak out? That's for us to worry about.)

Chim Chim Cher-ee -- Are there any small boys hanging around your house, not earning their keep? They probably don't mind getting dirty, right? Are they skinny and good at climbing? Just enter their maximum diameters into this app and soon they'll be rising to new heights in a time-honored career for boys.

Slave -- Credit card minimum payments getting you down? Mortgage lender threatening to repossess your home? Now you'll never have to worry about money again! Just download the new Slave app and sell yourself (or a family member) into slavery. It's a state of the art rendition of a time-tested solution to financial concerns. Just enter a few details about yourself (e.g., good teeth, strong back, poor map-reading skills) and the auction begins! Thousands of oil sheiks, Mauretanian camel drivers, and UN diplomats are bidding constantly. A few taps on your cell phone screen and you'll have food and lodging provided to you forever! And note that Slave has to be good for you because it has an ironic name. Or does it? Perhaps the name is meta-ironic, which sounds even better ... In any case, you'll never know until you try! (Also comes in Slayve for metalheads.)

Biens -- You know how in Frank Capra movies hobos are always huddled around campfires, morosely eating from cans of beans? Sure, back then the media made it look kind of sad, but Average Is Over. Now that you have a smartphone to provide 24/7 video entertainment, who needs to eat meat or live indoors? Biens the App opens the door to you and the rest of the Ninety Percent to become high-tech hobos. Imagine you and your loved ones huddled around your glowing smartphone watching Mad Men as you all cluck condescendingly at how Americans used to eat steak and live in houses while barely noticing the horrifying truth about life in America in 1960: they only had three networks to watch. Biens is the lifestyle for the 21st Century, a new (yet old) way of living that's both luminous and leguminous. (Actual beans for eating sold separately.)

December 29, 2013

The View from 1976

From New York magazine, August 23, 1976:
... The saga of the Me Decade begins with one of those facts that is so big and so obvious (like the Big Dipper), no one ever comments on it anymore. Namely: the 30-year boom. Wartime spending in the United States in the 1940s touched off a boom that has continued for more than 30 years. It has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. True, nothing has solved the plight of those at the very bottom, the chronically unemployed of the slums. Nevertheless, in Compton, California, today it is possible for a family at the very lowest class level, which is known in America today as “on welfare,” to draw an income of $8,000 a year entirely from public sources. This is more than most British newspaper columnists and Italian factory foremen make, even allowing for differences in living costs. In America truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen, and garbagemen make so much money—$15,000 to $20,000 (or more) per year is not uncommon—that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face. So one now says lower middle class. One can’t even call workingmen blue collar any longer. They all have on collars like Joe Namath’s or Johnny Bench’s or Walt Frazier’s. They all have on $35 Superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940s Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes and Seashell designs all over them. 
Well, my God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century—such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx—lived for the day of the liberated workingman. They foresaw a day when industrialism (Saint-Simon coined the word) would give the common man the things he needed in order to realize his potential as a human being: surplus (discretionary) income, political freedom, free time (leisure), and freedom from grinding drudgery. Some of them, notably Owen and Fourier, thought all this might come to pass first in the United States. So they set up communes here: Owen’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and 34 Fourier-style “phalanx” settlements—socialist communes, because the new freedom was supposed to be possible only under socialism. The old boys never dreamed that the new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom such as began in the United States in the 1940s. 
Nor would they have liked it if they had seen it. For one thing, the homo novus, the new man, the liberated man, the first common man in the history of the world with the much-dreamed-of combination of money, free time, and personal freedom—this American workingman didn’t look right. The Joe Namath-Johnny Bench—Walt Frazier-Superstar Qiana Wallpaper sport shirt, for a start. 
He didn’t look right, and he wouldn’t . . . do right! I can remember what brave plans visionary architects at Yale and Harvard still had for the common man in the early 1950s. (They actually used the term “common man.”) They had brought the utopian socialist dream forward into the twentieth century. They had things figured out for the workingman down to truly minute details such as lamp switches. The new liberated workingman would live as the Cultivated Ascetic. He would be modeled on the B.A.-degree Greenwich Village bohemian of the late 1940s—dark wool Hudson Bay shirts, tweed jackets, flannel trousers, briarwood pipes, good books, sandals and simplicity—except that he would live in a Worker Housing project. All Yale and Harvard architects worshiped Bauhaus principles and had the Bauhaus vision of Worker Housing. The Bauhaus movement absolutely hypnotized American architects, once its leaders, such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Miës van der Rohe, came to the United States from Germany in the 1930s. Worker Housing in America would have pure beige rooms, stripped, freed, purged of all moldings, cornices, and overhangs—which Gropius regarded as symbolic “crowns” and therefore loathsome. Worker Housing would be liberated from all wallpaper, “drapes,” Wilton rugs with flowers on them, lamps with fringed shades and bases that looked like vases or Greek columns. It would be cleansed of all doilies, knickknacks, mantelpieces, headboards, and radiator covers. Radiator coils would be left bare as honest, abstract sculptural objects.
But somehow the workers, incurable slobs that they were, avoided Worker Housing, better known as “the projects,” as if it had a smell. They were heading out instead to the suburbs—the suburbs!—to places like Islip, Long Island, and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles—and buying houses with clapboard siding and a high-pitched roof and shingles and gaslight-style front-porch lamps and mailboxes set up on top of lengths of stiffened chain that seemed to defy gravity and all sorts of other unbelievably cute or antiquey touches, and they loaded these houses up with “drapes” such as baffled all description and wall-to-wall carpet you could lose a shoe in, and they put barbecue pits and fish ponds with concrete cherubs urinating into them on the lawn out back, and they parked 25-foot-long cars out front and Evinrude cruisers up on tow trailers in the carport just beyond the breezeway.*
* Ignored or else held in contempt by working people, Bauhaus design eventually triumphed as a symbol of wealth and privilege, attuned chiefly to the tastes of businessmen’s wives. For example, Miës’s most famous piece of furniture design, the Barcelona chair, now sells for $1,680 [currently $6,906] and is available only through one’s decorator. The high price is due in no small part to the chair’s Worker Housing Honest Materials: stainless steel and leather. No chromed iron is allowed, and customers are refused if they want to have the chair upholstered in material of their own choice. 
Only leather is allowed, and only six shades of that: Seagram’s Building Lobby Palomino, Monsanto Company Lobby Antelope, Architectural Digest Pecan, Transamerica Building Ebony, Bank of America Building Walnut, and Embarcadero Center Mink.

Business Strategy 101

Once at a high school reunion I caught up with an old classmate who had been an undersized but ferocious athlete (his bigger little brother had been John Elway's successor as Stanford's quarterback), and became a motorcycle cop. He had just gotten back from a dream vacation in New York during which he'd seen nine Broadway musicals. 

In case you are wondering, he is the doting father of three daughters. Cop, wife, and three girls times nine equals 45 tickets. Of the nine most expensive musicals on Broadway in mid-December 2013, the fifth (and thus median) was long-running Wicked at an average price of $149. So, that's six or seven thousand bucks for a family of five to attend nine shows.

By the way, Wicked has taken in $793,000,000 on Broadway alone from 2003-2013, higher than the domestic totals of even either of James Cameron's last two movies. That's a lot of money. And that's not the most, either. The Lion King has now surpassed one billion dollars just playing at one theater on Broadway.

As you would expect, various parties have staked their claims to a slice of the pie. After all, you can't outsource Broadway, and it's resistant to insourcing.

Here's a good article on Local 1, the stage hands union in New York that works Broadway and other top tier live events in Manhattan. Their work rules guarantee that they'll put in huge amounts of overtime, for which they are lavishly compensated. A few at the Met opera get over half a million per year in wages and benefits. (The NYT doesn't have access to compensation stats for profit Broadway theaters, but presumably they pay in the same ballpark.)

Not surprisingly, the demographics of stage hands are similar to those of film crews in Hollywood, only more so:
Jobs are often passed from father to son, and some members are now the fifth generation of their families to hold Local 1 cards. [Union boss] Mr. Claffey, whose total compensation in 2011 as Local 1’s chief was $277,000, is one of six Claffey brothers in the union. 
(It is most definitely a band of brothers. The union is still overwhelmingly white and male. Two years ago, it convened a meeting of its Sisters Committee for the first time, drawing 28 women, which the union’s newsletter said was nearly 20 percent of all the women in the local, suggesting that there are around 140 [out of 2,600].)
That's Econ 101, as rendered in Business Strategy 101: find yourself a defensible piece of monopoly power, and defend it.

December 27, 2013

Breaking news: Politics in Constantinople remain byzantine

Fethullah Gülen of
of Saylorsburg, Penn., leader
of the shadowy Gulenists.
In the United States, few ploys are more effective at deflecting media interest from a line of inquiry than to label it a "conspiracy theory." In much of the rest of the world, however, with Istanbul traditionally leading the way, conspiracy theories are cherished as the most plausible way to understand political and legal events. After all, what else are politicians, generals, government officials, religious leaders, business magnates, and journalists paid to do other than to conspire over small cups of strong coffee? And why wouldn't you want to know who is conspiring against whom?

A New York Times op-ed illustrates this American-Turkish gap in worldview: Andrew Finkel, author of “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know," explains in the NYT:
ISTANBUL — A wave of early morning police raids in Turkey on Dec. 17 gave the world a sudden glimpse into the murky inner workings of the country’s ruling elite, pulling back the curtain on astonishing scenes of bribery and graft. 
The head of the state-controlled financial giant, Halkbank, had $4.5 million secreted in shoe boxes in his study. Istanbul’s best-known real-estate developer was interrogated over bribes to evade zoning restrictions.

I am shocked, shocked to hear that Istanbul's best-known real-estate developer is under suspicion of paying bribes to evade zoning restrictions, and that high ranking government officials appear to be skimming cash from gigantic construction projects such as the city's new international airport.

In Turkey, however, the locals have a different reaction to the news from these police raids on Turkey's rich and powerful: they want to know who is behind these audacious attacks on the power structure. After all, it takes more than a little bravery to attack a national leader's confidants.

In contrast, Westerners like New York Times' readers are annoyed by Turks' interest in behind-the-scenes machinations. Instead, Turks should just focus on what has been presented to them in the media and not try to figure out why it's suddenly in the media. Speculating about what's going on behind the curtains is downright un-American. Finkel goes on:
...Mr. Erdogan does not know how to play defense. Last weekend, he addressed rally after rally and cursed the “international groups” and “dark alliances” trying to undermine Turkey’s prestige. Newspapers tied to his government named the culprits: Israel and the United States. One pro-Erdogan broadsheet demanded that the American ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., be declared persona non grata for trying to punish Halkbank for its dealings with Iran. 
... Absolute power corrupting absolutely tells only part of the Turkish story. ...
Many commentators have framed the raids as evidence of an escalating row between Mr. Erdogan and the religious preacher Fethullah Gulen, who controls an influential network of adherents from a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. 
It’s true that the Gulenists were natural allies of the A.K.P. when it first came to power in 2002. Zekeriya Oz, the prosecutor who initiated last week’s investigation, is the same official who launched the Ergenekon trial — a successful criminal action against the top brass for plotting a military coup (he is believed to have Gulen connections).

Ergenekon was a giant conspiracy theory propounded by Erdogan's elected government alleging that out-of-favor Kemalist generals and other lifetime members of the deep state were formulating a giant conspiracy to overthrow the government to prevent the government from conspiring against the deep state out of its fear that the deep state was conspiring against the government and so forth and so on.

To the American mind, this hall of mirrors set of conspiracy theories seems alien -- after all, we've been conditioned by extensive campaigns going back to the Warren Report to never believe in conspiracy theories. But to the Turkish mind, an infinite loop of conspiracy theories seems obvious; moreover, the average American strikes the average Turk as a naive dupe too obtuse to notice how he is being manipulated by powerful interests in America and abroad.
The speculation is that many of those police officers who lost their jobs in the last 10 days had Gulen affiliations. A recent brimstone sermon webcast by Mr. Gulen fueled speculation that new revelations about A.K.P. wrongdoing are in the pipeline. 
But blaming the Gulen movement is a bit like blaming Zionists. It’s a sad commentary on contemporary Turkey that people have to reach for conspiracy theories to explain why public officials are doing their job to prosecute corruption.

In contrast, we don't have to reach for conspiracy theories in contemporary America to explain why public officials are doing their job to prosecute corruption in, say, the mortgage mess. Instead, almost nobody gets prosecuted.
... The government is treating the crisis as nothing short of a coup by those jealous of its success.

Similarly, the American government doesn't have to worry about a coup by those envious of its success.
This is nonsense. 
The opposition it faces has emerged because of the A.K.P’s own lack of respect for the rule of law and a cynical disregard for public accountability. It can no longer hide behind conspiracy theories and bluster. 

December 26, 2013

Tetlock's Good Judgment Project

U. of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip Tetlock has been studying "expert political judgment" for decades. An early finding was that people who are employed to go on TV and make exciting forecasts about the future aren't very accurate. Simple extrapolation models -- things are going to keep on keeping on, only more so -- tend to be a little more accurate than media experts (who, in their defense, are on TV to be interesting -- the notion that the near future is probably going to be a lot like the recent past is just about the definition of Bad TV).

Then he determined that people who are ideological one trick ponies (hedgehogs, to use Isaiah Berlin's terminology) are worse at forecasting than people who have more arrows in their quiver (foxes). (Here are some other Tetlock findings.)

A few years ago Tetlock started the Good Judgment Project in which anybody on the Internet can try their hand at forecasting the upcoming year's events. (It's subsidized by federal spooks at IARPA.)

Tetlock recently wrote in the Economist:
In the late 1980s one of us (Philip Tetlock) launched such a tournament. It involved 284 economists, political scientists, intelligence analysts and journalists and collected almost 28,000 predictions. The results were startling. The average expert did only slightly better than random guessing. Even more disconcerting, experts with the most inflated views of their own batting averages tended to attract the most media attention. Their more self-effacing colleagues, the ones we should be heeding, often don’t get on to our radar screens. 
That project proved to be a pilot for a far more ambitious tournament currently sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), part of the American intelligence world. Over 5,000 forecasters have made more than 1m forecasts on more than 250 questions, from euro-zone exits to the Syrian civil war. Results are pouring in and they are revealing. We can discover who has better batting averages, not take it on faith; discover which methods of training promote accuracy, not just track the latest gurus and fads; and discover methods of distilling the wisdom of the crowd. 
The big surprise has been the support for the unabashedly elitist “super-forecaster” hypothesis. The top 2% of forecasters in Year 1 showed that there is more than luck at play. If it were just luck, the “supers” would regress to the mean: yesterday’s champs would be today’s chumps. But they actually got better. When we randomly assigned “supers” into elite teams, they blew the lid off IARPA’s performance goals. They beat the unweighted average (wisdom-of-overall-crowd) by 65%; beat the best algorithms of four competitor institutions by 35-60%; and beat two prediction markets by 20-35%. 
To avoid slipping back to business as usual—believing we know things that we don’t—more tournaments in more fields are needed, and more forecasters. So we invite you, our readers, to join the 2014-15 round of the IARPA tournament. Current questions include: Will America and the EU reach a trade deal? Will Turkey get a new constitution? Will talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme resume? To volunteer, go to the tournament’s website at We predict with 80% confidence that at least 70% of you will enjoy it—and we are 90% confident that at least 50% of you will beat our dart-throwing chimps.

One of my readers is a super-forecaster in Tetlock's tournaments, and he writes:
Hi Steve,  
I saw your question at WaPo pages from two days ago and, since no one answered and I am not about make an account with them, I thought I'd answer by email. As a regular reader of your blog, it's my pleasure. I am one of the 120 "superforecasters." 
Are you allowed to pick and choose which questions to answer? 
Yes, you are, but with some limitations:  
1. You must answer 1/3 (for regular participants) or 1/2 (for "supers") of all questions in during the season. This year, it's about 150 between August 1 through May 1. If you don't, they drop you and don't pay a laughable (considering the time spent) honorarium of $150 ($250 for those "retained" from past year).  
2. You will be scored for all questions no matter what. As the very first solid finding of the project was that teams of 12-15 give better forecasts than individual forecasters (duh!), almost all participants today work in teams. For all questions that you did not forecast (and for all days that you didn't forecast any particular question), your score will be median of the your team's. Team's score is median of individual forecasters.  
As Tetlock's team keeps saying, doing well in this weird competition involves more than sheer luck. (I suppose that's their biggest finding to date and they are doing all kinds of silly psychometric tests on us to see what they can correlate it to). Two examples:  
- In the first year, I finished high in my "experimental condition" that had over 100 participants. All forecasts were individual in this condition. Top predictors from each group became "supers," others were allowed to keep going as usual. Majority, I imagine, dropped out because it truly takes a lot of time. A few others who were near the top but didn't make it to "supers" did well enough next year to achieve the "super" status. Even if they "competed" within a pool of several thousand.  
- Last year, a particular group of "supers" beat everyone in the other groups by a largish margin. Today, this same team still has the best score even if "supers" competition is now among eight groups. 
And yes, the "supers" consistently beat everyone else, but I think it has a lot to with self-selection for folks willing to google on regular basis information pertaining to completely weird stuff like this: 
Will China seize control of the Second Thomas Shoal before 1 January 2014 if the Philippines structurally reinforces the BRP Sierra Madre beforehand? (The answer is supposed to come as probability and can be updated daily if desired.) 

The BRP Sierra Madre is the rusting hulk of a ship that the Filipino navy ran onto a reef in the Spratley Islands in 1999 and has maintained a half-starved platoon in it ever since in an attempt to establish a legal precedent to underwater oil and gas rights in the South China Sea. Very Waterworldy, except with a far smaller budget. (By the way, I had never heard of this ship until two hours ago.)

My prediction is: This Probably Won't Happen by January 1, 2014, considering it's already December 26th (assuming it hasn't already happened and I didn't notice).

Now that I think about it, I wouldn't be surprised if a fair amount of competence in this tournament derives from having a sense of just how long it takes for stuff to happen. Since the game looks at typically annual time frames so that it can determine winners and losers in a reasonable amount of time, I bet a lot of losers have a tendency to say, "Yeah, that will probably happen" without estimating how long it could take for it to happen.

For example, say there is a question that asks if the coalition government in Britain or Germany or wherever will come undone. In the long run, the answer is surely Yes. But, will it happen within the next year? Powerful people often are pretty talented at kicking the can down the road for another year.

Even if you read well-informed writers on a particular topic, your reading may bias you toward assuming something is going to happen soon. For example, consider the question of whether the division of the island of Cyprus will last. In the long run, perhaps not. On the other hand, the short run is now four decades old.

If you read articles about the Cyprus situation, the authors have a natural bias to argue that this topic of their expertise is less boring than it sounds because Real Soon Now, something is going to happen, so you should pay attention to what they have to say.

Another trap is that players in the real world are also making the same calculations as you are. For example, say you figure there is a high probability the Chinese will immediately seize control of the Second Thomas Shoal in retaliation if the Filipino government fixes up its rusting hulk. After all, the Filipino's can't afford to stop the Chinese.

But what if the Filipino foreign minister is of the same mind as you about the unstoppability of Chinese retaliation? Perhaps he or she reasons: at present, we can't stop the Chinese from retaliating if we fix up our Waterworld set, so let's not fix it up in 2013. Maybe in 2014 or later we will be able to put together a coalition of powers to deter the Chinese from seizing the Second Thomas Shoal, but we can't do it yet, so let's not cause a confrontation now that we are sure to lose.

Thus, on this question which is conditional upon the Filipinos setting the ball rolling, the only way to win if you think the Chinese would retaliate is for the Filipino government to have worse judgment than you have. You only get credit for getting this question right if the Chinese agree with you and the Filipinos disagree.
 As you can imagine, it requires more or less the same mentality as the one demonstrated by those tireless Wikipedia editors. 

It's interesting that Tetlock and Co. randomly assigns the best forecasters into all-star teams. I wonder if voluntary teams of stars would be even better. Theoretically, you'd want your team to be made up of different specialists, like a comic book universe superhero squad such as the Avengers or the Justice League, so negotiating the makeup of your own team ought to be best. But perhaps personalities would get in the way?

With so many questions, the role of inside information is likely minimized. I mean, do you know anybody who is a big wheel in Spratley Islands circles? Probably not. And if you do, you probably don't know too many people in the Turkish constitution-writing business.

Yet, much of the traditional role of diplomats was to collect inside information at social gatherings by charming and lulling other diplomats into spilling the beans about their governments' intentions regarding Constantinople.

Of course, with inside information in the financial sphere, there has long been a metaphysical debate over the prime mover exception. In the early 1990, the feds prosecuted Michael Milken for making profitable forecasts about stock prices based on inside information about upcoming takeover bids his stooges were launching. Milken's defenders argued that logically there had to be an exception for the ultimate insider in a takeover bid, and that Milken was obviously the main man, not the nominal corporate raider whom he was financing. An interesting point, but the feds put him in prison for a couple of years, anyway. (That seems like a long time ago.)

I recently read the latest Lawrence of Arabia biography, Lawrence in Arabia, and it seems like T.E. Lawrence for a few years had the knack of prediction when it came to the Middle East: e.g., don't land at Gallipoli, land at Alexandretta (not that we can tell what would have happened in the counterfactual). Of course, to help make some of his predictions come true -- e.g., Prince Feisal looks like a winner -- he would get on his camel and go blow something up in Prince Feisal's name, which participants in the Good Judgment Project are probably discouraged from doing.

Another question would be how big of a g-factor is there in world affairs forecasting. Do people who specialize in southeast Asia outpredict global generalists on the Second Thomas Shoal question? Or to be a global generalist, do you just have to be better overall than the regional specialists?

Consider major league baseball players by way of analogy. Often they have fairly specialized roles in the majors such as closer or utility infielder. Yet in high school, they typically played shortstop or centerfield (when they weren't pitching), and they almost all batted third or cleanup in the lineup. In other words, they were just the best all-around ballplayers on their high school teams. There is a substantial baseball g-factor.

On the other hand, the minor leagues are full of good all-around baseball players who lack the special skill -- a 95 mph fastball rather than a 90 mph one, or 20-13 vision rather than 20-18, or being a plodding 240 pound lefty first baseman rather than a 240 pound righty first baseman -- that would make them useful in the majors.

It's almost tautological that there will be both a g-factor and specific subfactors (such as language knowledge) in international affairs forecasting. The question will be what is the balance and what are the most important subfactors.

Obama DoJ: "Knockout Game" exists!

Last month, there was much debate over whether or not "knockout game" exists or was just a figment of the imagination of white racists. Now, the Obama Administration has ended that debate:
Department of Justice 
Office of Public Affairs 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Thursday, December 26, 2013 
Texas Man Charged with Federal Hate Crime for Punching and Breaking Jaw of 79-year-old African American Man 
Conrad Alvin Barrett, 27, has been charged with a federal hate crime related to a racially-motivated assault of a 79-year-old African American man, announced  Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels of the Civil Rights Division along with U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson of the Southern District of Texas and Special Agent in Charge Stephen L. Morris of the FBI. 
“Hate crimes tear at the fabric of entire communities,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Samuels.   “As always, the Civil Rights Division will work with our federal and state law enforcement partners to ensure that hate crimes are identified and prosecuted, and that justice is done.” ...
The complaint charges Barrett, of Katy, Texas, with one count of violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. According to the complaint, on Nov. 24, 2013, Barrett attacked the elderly man because of the man’s race and color in what Barrett called a “knockout.” ...
Barrett allegedly recorded himself on his cell phone attacking the man and showed the video to others.   The complaint alleges Barrett made several videos, one in which he identifies himself and another in which he makes a racial slur.   In addition, Barrett had allegedly been working up the “courage” to play the “knockout game” for approximately a week. 
The “knockout game” is an assault in which an assailant aims to knock out an unsuspecting victim with one punch.   According to the complaint, the conduct has been called by other names and there have been similar incidents dating as far back as 1992. 
According to the complaint, Barrett comments in a video that “the plan is to see if I were to hit a black person, would this be nationally televised?”  

I predict the answer to that will prove to be: Yes.

My 2014 forecast!

Occasionally, I get asked for my predictions for the upcoming year. I usually try to dodge doing that because forecasting the future is hard work and I'd just be embarrassingly wrong. But I do have one prediction: Brazil will win the soccer World Cup! 

You see, Brazilians like soccer, there are a lot of them, and the 2014 World Cup will be held in Brazil. Another forecast: If Brazil doesn't win, maybe Argentina will. Why? Argentina is near Brazil and Argentina even has a player whose name I know.

Unfortunately, people aren't really interested in that kind of prediction because it has already been done, as shown by the odds:

Latest 2014 World Cup Odds

LadbrokesPaddypowerBet365Bet VictorBetfredWilliam HillCoral
Brazil are the early market leaders in the betting for the 2014 World Cup, for which they are hosts. Current World and European Champions, Argentina are second favourites ahead of Germany and holders Spain. The Netherlands, Italy and England were all handed tough draws and have drifted in the betting as a result, whilst favourable draws for Argentina, Belgium and Colombia saw them all shorten.

Seriously, the home hemisphere advantage appears to be a big deal in the World Cup: South American countries have won all seven World Cups played in the Americas and European countries have won 9 out of 10 World Cups played in Europe. (The two continental powers have split the World Cups played in South Africa and Japan/South Korea.)

Is it the fans cheering? Jet lag? Players getting out of shape during long steamship cruises? Early evenings under the watchful eye of the missus? Or just random luck? Does anybody know if this pattern that goes back to 1930 ought to continue?

December 25, 2013

Christmas Econ Punditpalooza

From CNBC:
Rudolph's Ruddy Nose (Wonkish) 
By Paul Krugman, New York Times 
Joe Weisenthal has a terrific take on the growth of unemployment in the North Pole. As is well known, reindeer unemployment has surged. Yet the Very Serious Elves who promised that sleigh austerity would rapidly bring growth back to the Pole have learned nothing.  
But it's not just the elves. Even economists, who should know better, go on insisting that we need to shrink Santa's route now despite high reindeer unemployment. Some continue to insist that there just is a skill mismatch in the Pole economy, so that we have no choice but to allow the diminutive Rudolph resources go unemployed. This truly is the dark age of North Pole economics.
Imagine for a moment that the pole suffered from an immense foggy night. Everyone would agree in that case that we could put Rudolph's red nose to good use. I know it drives people crazy when I mention that a crisis can be good for aggregate demand—but everyone who disagrees with me is already crazy, so who cares?

Santa Claus is inflating away the future of Christmas 
By Niall Ferguson, Financial Times 
In the course of history there have always been those who believed that we could celebrate Christmas in perpetuity. And every time, without fail, the Christmas program has run up against the hard reality of inflation. You just cannot expect that producing all those gifts out of the ether will not diminish the value of all the gifts that have come before and all those that shall come after.

The truth about Christmas and Inflation 
By Josh Barro, Business Insider 
Niall Ferguson writes: "You just cannot expect that producing all those gifts out of the ether will not diminish the value of all the gifts that have come before and all those that shall come after. 
Niall Ferguson is a jerk.
The dirty secret of North Pole's success 
By Steve Sailer, 
There appears to be a silent rule among pundits—all of whom secretly read me—that we not mention immigration and the North Pole in the same sentence. The truth is that the success of Santa's operation up there demonstrates that the accepted orthodoxy on immigration is 100 percent wrong. For as long as anyone can remember, there's been zero immigration to the North Pole—yet the economy thrives, the elves have a thriving culture and there is very little social strife. All that is supposed to be impossible in a monoculture. 
But, of course, you're not supposed to notice these hate-facts.

Open Borders: Why should they stop at Christmas? 
By Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution 
Every year the American government briefly relaxes its stranglehold on our borders to permit the entrance of Santa Claus and his team of reindeer. If this is a good thing on Christmas, imagine how much better it would be if we made this our year round policy? Have you ever eaten in an Elven restaurant? The candy canes are sublime. 
While there are some who think that competition with elf workers would impoverish American workers, there is not a lot of evidence to support this. In fact, the toy making of the elves would likely be complimentary to native production. What's more, the wealth generated by elven labor would add to economic growth. ...

The Candy Cane Racket 
By Tim Carney, Washington Examiner ...
... As it turns out, Santa's little lobbyists had a hand in writing the Domestic Candy Protection Act of 2010. And the former chief staffer for the Senate Subcommittee on Curved Candy now works for the lobbying firm employed by Santa. ...
Here's what you need to know about this year's big Christmas econ-war 
By Joe Weisenthal, Business Insider 
[Click to view this 28 page slide show on one page]

Read the whole thing there. Thanks to John Carney of CNBC. By the way, how many Carneys are there?

December 24, 2013

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, you know? I am become, like, Death, destroyer of worlds?

The War on Stereotypes rolls on. From the New York Times:
Overturning the Myth of Valley Girl Speak 
Are you still making fun of young women for talking like Valley Girls? 
Do you assume that because their statements end in a hesitant, rising quaver (“My name is Brittany?”) they are shallow, scattered or uncertain? Even that they sound — how to say this politely? is there any way? — intellectually your inferior? 
Is there nuance hidden inside “Valley Girl speak” — and is it used exclusively by women? 
For years, sociologists and linguists have studied that lilt, referring to it as “uptalk” or “high-rising intonation.” They found its presence in large pockets throughout the English-speaking world — Australia? England? New Zealand? Some date it to the 1950s, others say it is centuries old. 
In America, it became popularized during the 1980s as Valley Girl Speak, presumably inspired by Frank Zappa’s hit 1982 song “Valley Girl,” a derisive reference to the young white women of California’s San Fernando Valley who spoke it as their own dialect.

Sure, the Valley Girls at the new Sherman Oaks Galleria Mall on Ventura Boulevard were white, but they were women (or pre-women) so that means noticing anything about them is ist.

In reality, uptalking, which happened in a lot of places (Minnesota, Canada, Canton, Dixie, etc.), was just one small part of the rich insanity of Valley Girl speech. Let's go to the videotape:
You can just feel the palpable oppression that Valley Girls labored under beneath the lash of patriarchy.
Films like “Heathers” and “Clueless” perpetuated and parodied the stereotype of the speech and its purported lifestyle.

The researchers gave the speakers two tasks: using a map to give directions to a listener, and describing a sitcom clip they had just watched. 
Generally, the women did use uptalk almost twice as often as men, with their rises beginning later in a sentence and hitting higher pitches. But even in making a simple, declarative statement such as, “My appointment is at 9 o’clock,” which a non-uptalker (downtalker?) might end with a falling intonation, the men and women in this group used rises with similar frequency. 
When giving directions, a non-uptalker would use a declarative sentence, without a rising inflection. But uptalkers did use rises, as if they were implicitly asking the listener to confirm that they were being understood: “Go all the way to the right in the middle where it says Canyon Hills?” Both the men and women in the study used uptalk 100 percent of the time in these so-called “confirming” statements. 
Uptalk, the researchers found, could also serve a strategic purpose through a technique known as “floor-holding,” in which the speaker, anticipating an interruption by the listener, tries to stave it off by using a rising tone at the end of a statement. Floor-holding is the vocal equivalent of holding up your palm, as if to say, “Wait, I’m not finished!” 
In the study, women spoke with the floor-holding rise nearly 60 percent of the time: “O.K., so go toward Warren” (pronounced as a high-rising “Waa—REN?”). Men used it only 28 percent of the time, tending instead to maintain steady voices, in a plateau. Amalia Arvaniti, a co-author of the study who is now head of the English language and linguistics department at the University of Kent in England, said, “It could indicate that young women were generally interrupted more than men and so it’s a defense mechanism.”

Or it could be that young women like to talk more and thus use strategies to hold the floor. Or it could be that they develop insider lingo to exclude outsiders.

Or maybe it was fun.

Consider two similar sentences. The downtalking version:
I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. 

That's kind of a conversation stopper.

It's really not all that conducive to either the listeners or the speaker saying anything further, other than maybe, "When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry."

The uptalking version:
I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, you know?

Presumably, the uptalker has lots more to say about himself beyond that incident in Reno, and if he flags, he's expecting his listeners to jump in to encourage him to tell them more with their own uptalking interjections like "Really?"
Here's another good bit to practice uptalking:
I am become Death? The destroyer of worlds, you know? 

A commenter notes:
I was raised in the mid-west and moved to Hollywood in 1973 when I was 14 years. A year later I moved to Sylmar, in the San Fernando Valley. I knew kids from all over the valley, and yes, girls there did uptalk different than I'd ever heard before, even in Hollywood. It was much more pervasive among the more affluent neighborhoods in the South Valley like Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills, but it crept North, into Granada Hills and Northridge, even into Sylmar which was still somewhat rural at the time. 

Yes, that was Moon Unit Zappa's interpretation, too: she was raised in the West Hollywood side of Laurel Canyon. West Hollywood is a densely packed adult playground of rock stars, gays, eccentrics, and culturati (e.g., Stravinsky and Schoenberg lived in West Hollywood for years). In other words, it's not really for kids. But when she ventured north into the suburban San Fernando Valley, she found that the local girls, who dominated Valley culture, uptalked more.

Valley Girl talk doesn't have much to do with patriarchy oppressing women. Instead, it emerged from the huge number of affluent Baby Boomer adolescent females in the San Fernando Valley talking to each other all the time on their Princess phones on the bedroom extension lines that their doting dads paid for.

The San Fernando Valley back then was like that Bedouin village that's so inbred that it has high rates of deafness, and therefore the deaf children had enough other deaf children around to make up their own sign language. The Valley was the same thing (minus the deafness, inbreeding, and camels): if you get enough kids together, they'll develop their own ways of communicating.

By the way, here is the 1953 song "Crescent City Blues" by Gordon Jenkins and sung by Beverly Mahr. (The song follows some scene-setting talk -- it was part of a proto-concept album.) "Crescent City Blues" resembles "Folsom Prison Blues" to the tune of the $75,000 settlement Cash paid Jenkins in the 1970s. But the melodic differences between the two songs -- chiefly in the extreme downtalking that ends Cash's choruses -- are illustrative of male and female personality differences:

Merry Christmas!