Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Thoughts from New Orleans on Fat Tuesday, 2015

-One of the most striking things about New Orleans during Mardi gras, oddly enough, is the attitude of the police. (Okay, lest you be questioning whether red blood still flows through my veins, there are other striking things too, noted below, but this one was perhaps the most surprising). I’ve never seen police so chilled out in my whole life, entirely unconcerned by the debauchery around them. I spent a while watching them trying to figure out if this was

a) the fact that nothing surprises them anymore, having seen all this nonsense thousands of times,

b) part of a brilliantly devised ‘small footprint’ strategy whereby they let small infractions go and concentrate only on the big stuff, as the debauchery is important for the city and police antagonism will mostly make the situation worse, or

c) whether they were in fact wholly nonchalant about crime, and simply didn’t give a flying @#$%.

It’s probably a little of all three, but I ended up putting more weight on the latter option than I had initially. Part of this came from hearing various stories from locals, including seeing a cop in uniform light up a joint, someone trying to alert police to a man passed out on the side of the road and receiving a shrug as the official response, and of course the murder rate of 57 per 100,000 which would make the Republic of New Orleans the second highest murder rate country in the world.

-Related to strategy b) above, New Orleans really reveals the absurdity of open container and street drinking laws. Who would have thought that people can actually take a beer from a bar out into the street and society doesn’t collapse around them. Instead, the focus is on more practical thing like having all drinks served in plastic cups to minimize the risk of broken glass. You’d think that this kind of sensible example would catch on around the western world, but only if you’d never seen the absurd moral panics that society gets attached to. Giving people a ticket for having a beer in public is contemptible and unworthy of a free society.

-Having a passing familiarity some of the extant literature on the subject, there was actually less public nudity at Mardi Gras than I expected. Which is to say, there was some, but it certainly wasn’t ubiquitous. Never underestimate the power of good editing to create a very unrepresentative sample. As well as being more clothed on average, the crowd was also older and blacker than the literature would suggest. The fact that editing would hide the first fact is unsurprising, the second fact perhaps more so.

-In the annals of ‘curious facts about male sexual preferences’, the odd fascination with public nudity is definitely up there. This is put into sharp relief when you have on Bourbon street multiple strip clubs which will show you highly attractive fully nude women at a moment’s notice for not very much money. But instead, during Mardi Gras people seem far more interested in the possibility of a one second flash from some who isn’t a stripper, and usually doesn’t have a stripper’s body. Never underestimate the appeal of the illicit, of seeing what is normally covered up, and overall the aspect of slight reluctance. Seeing someone get convinced by a crowd to flash appeals to the male brain in ways that a girl on stage willingly taking off her clothes never quite captures. Male sexual preference is odd indeed, especially when it comes to strip clubs

-Mardi Gras attracts a large number of very earnest Christians out to try to save the souls of revelers. I find these people fascinating. Say what you will about their beliefs, it takes some serious cojones to stand in the middle of Bourbon Street carrying a huge cross and yelling about Jesus to the potentially antagonistic drunks all around you. Most of us never believe anything with that kind of sincerity (for better or worse).

-The fact that Mardi Gras is associated with the Catholic traditions around Lent is always hilarious to me. People seem to have taken the idea of penance and renunciation for Lent and instead transformed it exclusively into a time-series shift in debauchery while keeping the total amount either constant, or more likely increasing it in total. Even funnier, the tradition of increasing sordid behavior before lent stuck around long after people stopped following the other part of piety and giving up pleasures. Substitution effects are tricky things.

-Bourbon street is another example like the Vegas strip of the unusually strong power of network effects. There is very little architecturally, visually or resource-wise to set apart Bourbon street from nearby streets. But one of them is packed when the others are nearly deserted. Truly, people like being around other people.
-I went to the Orpheuscapade Ball, which was awesome. I only found out about the various balls because one of the girls in our group had grown up in New Orleans, and knew that this was the thing to do (while the tourists all go to Bourbon Street). There were thousands of people in black tie, watching the floats go through the New Orleans convention center. I really enjoyed seeing the old Southern High Society. You never hear about them much – I kind of thought the Civil War had routed most of that old tradition, but it still lingers on. All you hear about the South is the rural white trash side, but never the rich upper class white side. Especially the Southern society girls. Smoking hot, rich, conservative – what’s not to love?

-Related to the above, the ball had as its main musical act a guy who was apparently a big country star. I’ve been in this country more than a decade now, which is long enough to lull me into the sense that I’ve pretty much got the hang of the place. And then I’ll hear a country music concert and get reminded how there’s a huge side of America than I just about never see. To make matters even stranger, a lot of the country music crowd would probably vote in a more similar way to me (if I were inclined to vote, which I’m not) than the people I live around. Though if you broke it down issue by issue instead of shoe-boxing everyone into one of two parties, the overlap would certainly become smaller. While the crowd here was a long way from the standard rural Republican voting set, the enthusiasm of the crowd for a wholly alien musical genre was a bit of a reminder of the extent of the country that is essentially invisible when you live in big coastal cities.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A good heuristic for a certain type of BS

One phrase that in practice means almost the exact opposite of what it claims is the expression 'scientifically proven'.

I have known a good number of scientists, both social and physical, and I've never once heard them use this expression non-ironically to describe either their own, or anyone else's work. Mathematics proves things, by formal theorems. Science, on the other hand, provides evidence that supports some hypotheses and which rejects other hypotheses. But even when a null hypothesis is formally rejected, knowledge in the sciences is contingent. At any time, your theory is making falsifiable predictions that are so far consistent with the data, but which might be overturned at any time.

And even in places like economics, theory models, which do use formal mathematical proofs of particular ideas and thus may loosely be justified in terms of speaking of 'proof', almost never use the term when referencing the broad idea they're trying to advance. Economists will say 'I solve a model which shows how information asymmetry affects trading volume', not 'Information asymmetry is scientifically proven to decrease trading volume'. What has been solved is one particular model, but there are many other competing models that may be consistent with the data too. Nobody would dream of saying that science proved their theory result.

'Oh sure', you might say, 'we understand that there's a distinction among the finer points of philosophy of science. But in practice, saying science has proved something just means there's lots of evidence consistent with it. Why be such a purist?'

A good question, since you asked.

The reason my heuristic works, however, is that most people who perform actual science do understand the distinction, and are likely to use the right language. By contrast, people who like the phrase 'scientifically proven' are almost always sneaking in an appeal to authority in order to paper over either a) their lack of understanding of the complexity of the issue, or b) the annoyingly inconclusive evidence for the particular proposition that they think it would be politically desirable for more people to believe.

The claim in the above paragraph, of course, is a hypothesis. In the name of science, we should see whether the evidence supports the hypothesis or not.

To check, here's the top 5 results that come up when I type in the phrase 'reject the null hypothesis' into Google News:

1. Do Teams Undervalue European Skaters in the Draft?
2. Hypothesis Testing in Finance: Concept & Examples
3. Culture war in the deep blue sea: Science’s contentious quest to understand whales and dolphins
4. WaPo Climate Fail on Missouri
5. Using a fund manager? You'd get the same results at a casino

So that may not sound stellar, but they're all somewhat related to formal evaluation of evidence for and against ideas in the social or physical sciences. Now compare it with what comes up for 'scientifically proven':

1. Scientifically proven herbal aphrodisiacs
2. Writing Exercises Scientifically Proven To Redirect Your Life
3. 10 scientifically proven ways love can heal!
4. Emojis Are Now Scientifically Proven To Help You Get Lucky
5. Ryan Gosling’s Face Has Been Scientifically Proven To Make Men More Supportive Of Feminism

In other words, worthless clickbait. Colour me shocked.

The results, while not subjected to formal statistical testing, directionally support the hypothesis that 'scientifically proven' is a brain-dead appeal to authority by lazy English majors who wish to unjustifiably associate their claims with the patina of scientific credibility.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Legal institutions are sticky things, often stupidly so

I cannot for the life of me understand why courts still award alimony.

Not child support - that still mostly makes sense in principle, though in practice it has its own problems , like the fact that it can be spent on any number of things other than care for the children. There also particularly revolting versions like California's paternity arrangements whereby a man who is duped into believing that someone else's child is his own has only two years from the birth of the child to challenge paternity, otherwise he's stuck paying child support forever, genetic testing be damned. And even if he files in time, the court may still decide it's not in the child's interests - the man's interests, having been the subject of a vicious con that is the male equivalent of rape, are of less importance.

Where was I? Oh yes, the basic principles of child support are reasonable.

But what in the name of all that is holy is the justification for alimony in this day and age? When you marry someone, apparently you are entitled to a certain standard of living from that person in perpetuity. Phrased this way, it is bonkers.

For the feminists on this blog, here's a story a friend of mine told me today. His brother in law was married to a woman, and they had a child. The woman was a lawyer, but decided she wanted to stop working. She wasn't actually involved any more than the man in raising the child - they had nannies to take care of the child. Instead, the woman just lived a life of leisure, and never returned back to work. At some point she got bored, began an affair, and divorced the man. She claimed alimony, which she was awarded, based on the lifestyle she had before. She could still go back to her legal career now, obviously, but why would she? The man will be stuck paying alimony unless the woman decides to remarry. Of course, since there's now enormous financial disincentives against her remarrying, the smart money predicts she'll just move in with her new boyfriend and never remarry, so as to keep the cash flowing.

How on earth did we end up with such a bizarre arrangement? It seems obvious that nobody in their right mind would design this monstrosity today. But it's a holdover from the years long past when
a) women couldn't work outside the home, so couldn't support themselves short of remarrying,
b) divorces were only granted by fault, so if the man wanted to just pack up and leave, he would be slugged with alimony, but if the women was having an affair and the man sought a divorce, bad luck for the woman.
c) the social pressure on people to remarry the subject of their affair after the divorce was large, hence 'alimony until remarriage' was a reasonable estimate of the length of financial hardship.

It's pretty clear that none of this holds any more. There is a very limited grounds for alimony when a woman has given up several years of a career to raise the family's children. But once the children are at school age, it's hard to know why courts should subsidise permanent leisure. And between nannies and daycare, there are plenty of ways for both parents to go back to work within a length of time that won't be massively disruptive to a career, certainly for the one point something children that the average couple has.

There are good policy reasons to make sure that a non-working partner doesn't get totally left in the lurch, particularly when children are involved. But remember, even without alimony most of the time the non-working partner is going to get a significant fraction of the assets, so they're not going to be totally broke. And if there are still reasons to grant payments under a limited form of alimony, it seems that they should be something like unemployment benefits - payments for a limited number of time while the person finds a new occupation. Why one should get alimony indefinitely without working is beyond me. And if there are no children involved, it is absolutely inconceivable what the justification for alimony is. Get a damn job!

None of this will happen, of course. Feminists like alimony because they live in a Stalinist 'who, whom' universe, where extracting resources from beta male schlubs is an end in itself.

The only chance whatsoever for alimony reform is that as women's incomes start rising, the number of cases where lazy men are claiming alimony from their working ex-wives is on the rise. That might finally strike feminists as being unfair and deserving of reform, but just about nothing else will.

Speaking of which, in that story I told you, I did alter one minor detail. The main protagonist was actually my friend's sister-in-law. The lazy parent who stopped working, began an affair and successfully claimed alimony? That was the husband.

And you know what? The absurdity and injustice is exactly the same.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On Jordan

So Jordan is in the news recently. A Jordanian fighter pilot who had been captured by ISIS was burned alive on camera. So Jordan executed two prisoners whom ISIS had been purportedly talking about trading for the pilot.

Whatever you may think of this in terms of the rule of law (and let's face it, it's not exactly optimistic in terms of your likelihood of getting a fair trial if you commit terrorist acts in Jordan), this is definitely sound, if grim, foreign policy. Doing nothing in response to foreign provocations (such as, ooh, I don't know, Benghazi) looks weak and contemptible. Invading a country in response, however, seems more like throwing good money and lives after bad. This is an escalation, but not a big one, and a payment in kind. It sends two messages - one, that brutality will have consequences, and two, that we will not be squeamish about how we choose to retaliate. Both of which are pretty reasonable messages to send to ISIS in response to this kind of thing.

As far as Middle Eastern countries go, Jordan is pretty damn good. They've got a fairly stable government, which seems to be reasonably popular - at any rate, they managed to ride out the awful Arab Spring without the massive disruption of nearby countries, suggesting a certain level of popularity for the King. They made peace with Israel two decades ago (which was sensible) and gave up claims to the Palestinian territories (which, given they subsequently turned into basket case hellholes, was doubly sensible). Plus they have a totally hot Queen, and the neoreactionary in me is cheered by seeing a monarchy getting some good PR, even if for dubious reasons.

Look, Switzerland it ain't. I wouldn't want to try to run a newspaper there, nor find myself on the wrong side of their police force. But as you may have noticed, there aren't a whole lot of Switzerlands in the Middle East, certainly among the Arab Muslim countries.

Do you know the thing that recommends Jordan to me the most?

You don't hear much about Jordan.

And believe me, in that neighbourhood, that's a pretty damn good outcome. The same is true about Kuwait, incidentally. But in the case of Jordan, they happen to share borders with Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Be honest, can you imagine a list of countries you'd less rather be next door to in terms of promoting stability in your own country? Three of those places are essentially failed states, for crying out loud.

You may not like the country at an absolute level, but short of zombie Lord Cromer coming back to run it, it seems pretty likely than the Jordanian government is about as good as you're going to get any time soon from a government in that region. The perfect ought not be the enemy of the good.