Friday, June 27, 2014

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other


Party In The USA

So I'm a sucker for political quizzes. Like, the sort where you answer a bunch of clearly leading questions and then they drop you into one of four or possibly six poorly determined categorizations that don't match what you believe at all.

OK, actually, I'm not that much of a sucker for them, specifically for the reasons listed above. There is rarely ever only two answers to a question; motives mean just as much as outcomes when determining political philosophies; and, most importantly, I don't think that there's a binary spectrum of political thought. At the very least there are three axis (economics, social, and military) and you could just as easily probably add three more--and even these axis can be split up even more.

Still, every once in a while I'll look one over and take it. The Pew Research Center has one here. I'm not a real big fan of it--the questions are worded oddly, are somewhat repetitive, and don't even come close to plumping the depths of the nuances of ideology. However, they did at least make a pretty decent effort of splitting up the outcomes into eight different categories, from Solid Liberals to Steadfast Conservatives. They've included alternate names for what are traditionally classified as Libertarians ("Business Conservatives") and Populists ("Faith and Family Left") along with the traditional Liberal and Conservative. They've added in "Next Generation Left," "Hard-Pressed Skeptics," and "Young Outsiders," each with their own slight variation of degree on the spectrum. They also set up the "Bystanders" for those who don't engage the process or otherwise can't vote.

Thing is, you can re-calibrate this every few years, plugging in a different set of criteria each time and be a little accurate. I remember (mumble mumble) years ago, taking Poli Sci classes in college and learning about another similar octo-ideology system. Just as the Pew one above slightly favors liberals, back then it sliced conservatives up slightly more. While it can be fun and informative, I'm not sure how useful it is if you have to keep changing the outcomes every so many years.

And, really, I'm not sure it matters all that much. Most people are all over the place on various issues--and that's OK. And many people identify with a party that does not really line up with their opinions--and that is also OK. For me, a few fundamental questions should tell you where you land, and then take each issue as they come. There aren't two positions (Liberal and Conservative) or even four (add Libertarian and Populist); most people take a nuanced look at politics, as they should. And there's also absolutely nothing wrong with surrendering judgement to a collection of people (i.e., a political party) with whom you generally agree--there's no way everyone can know all the details and tradeoffs of every single issue, and anyone who claims that everyone should is naive.

Still, maybe I'll have to make a Crank Ideology Quiz myself just to see where all of you land. Might be interesting.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Supply And Demand

As should be not much of a surprise, my social media feeds are occasionally peppered with economic news (between a picture of a new Pumpkin-Peanut Butter Bliss Bar Explosion recipe, some poorly-thought-out political opinions represented in graphic meme form, and a bunch of gross Tough Mudder pictures). Someone recently linked this article about the different schools of thought, and I thought it deserves some thought.

Here's the thing: the chart the writer provides is actually pretty good. It does a simple outlining of the different schools within the science of economics. While I don't necessarily like setting up categories like this (you could just as easily make 4 categories as you could 20 with roughly the same degree of legitimacy) it's a decent enough summary of those popular disciplines that are different enough to be notable but not so overwhelmingly detailed about each one's nuance.

What I had an issue with is his introduction to the piece, adapted from a book by Ha-Joon Chang:

Despite what the experts want you to believe, there is more than one way of ‘doing’ economics
People have been led to believe that, like physics or chemistry, economics is a ‘science’, in which there is only one correct answer to everything; thus non-experts should simply accept the ‘professional consensus’ and stop thinking about it.

Contrary to what most economists would have you believe, there isn’t just one kind of economics – Neoclassical economics. In fact there are no less than nine different kinds, or schools, as they are often known. And none of these schools can claim superiority over others and still less monopoly over truth.

Contrary to his "what most economists would have you believe" line, I think he's dead wrong. Or, well, maybe not that wrong, in as much as I think he misses the point.

Economics is a science--but, no, it's not a science like chemistry or biology. There's a baseline level of technical "laws" that are no more or less valid than the laws of gravity. For example, the laws of supply and demand are absolute--they will not be violated without some sort of outside factor that economists routinely account for. Same thing with concepts like opportunity cost, comparative advantage, and diminishing returns. These things happen. They happen whether or not you want them to. You can't make the government, or institutions, or anything wish them away. 

It's hard for many people to accept this, mostly because the science of economics is tied so closely to human nature, and human nature is fickle. An atom is always going to behave like an atom, while Dolores down the street is willing to go against any form of rationality or taste and pay $2000 extra dollars to make sure her new car is hot pink. And yet the study of economics can, indeed, account for the preferences and decision-making that goes into each transaction, like Dolores's ugly new car. It's an emotional issue for a lot of people because they engage in economics every single minute of their lives, and it's sometimes hard to disassociate that with the nuclei that spin around in your body without so much as them asking you permission to do so. It's perhaps more accurate to equate the study of economics with, say, psychology; that's a science, too, even though it's made up of a wildly fluctuating and often unpredictable input/outcome situations.


Of course, where economists differ (and where the above schools of thought come into play legitimately) is when we get into the massive transactions that make up a global economy. Of course, it's a tenet of most classical economists that there is no way to track all of this (nor would we necessarily want to), and so the best thing to do is let the invisible hand (or, according to the chart above, eight other different theoretical things) sort the whole thing out. The degrees in which various institutions and macro-level decisions are made make up the differences in how the various schools of thought view the economy.

Really, however, any economic "school" that rejects the fundamental, nuts-and-bolts foundation of economic thought (like, say, supply and demand) really can't be thought of as economic systems, but (as my experience has seen) should be considered political ones. (Or, if you prefer, "social.") That's why I don't consider the sort of surface-level Marxism that most so-called modern-day socialists and communists adhere to really isn't an economic system at all, but rather a way to use brute force to change the laws of economics to fit political ends. (I say surface-level because, throughout its development the last century or so, many intellectual Marxists have made legitimate (if, in my opinion, erroneous) attempts at reconciling Marxism with the commonly accepted laws of economics.)

Why point all this out? It's a disturbing (albeit in no way new) trend to see people reject blatantly obvious economic rules to fit some sort of agenda. You can't simply say "Oh, the cost of health care/minimum wage/etc shouldn't go up because, well, it shouldn't" and completely ignore the fact that there's quite a few centuries' worth of evidence to state that we can't simply ignore the side effect we know full well is going to occur simply because it "shouldn't."

We wouldn't expect a glass jar to not fall off the table and shatter because it "shouldn't" have been dropped, so why would we expect the price of something not to rise if we artificially restrict its supply, simply because we think it "shouldn't"?  Perhaps it should be the role of the government to "fix" it--in fact, there's quite a few reasons why we might want to do just that-- but let's not pretend it's not going to happen in the first place, and we need to acknowledge that adjusting the economy to fit political needs is going to have a hard cost involved.

So Chang is kind of right in the sense that there is "more than one way of ‘doing’ economics." However, I reject that the foundations of economics are any less solid than the foundations of chemistry or physics or biology. Sadly, many people do.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Plan Accordingly

As all good and proper individuals do, I was wasting some time reading random entries in TV Tropes. In case you haven't started, TV Tropes is a web site where they take all of the old, tired tropes from pop culture and index them. It's a fascinating read, and one of those things where you don't realize that you've been reading the alarmingly numerous amount of examples of how the two-way radio getting disconnected is vital to moving the plot along.

Anyway, I was reading the entry on the Indy Ploy. The Indy Ploy is where a character has no idea what they are doing...which is perfect, because then there's no way for the enemy to counter it. Basically, because Indiana Jones (or MacGuyver, or Captain Kirk, or whoever) is making it up as they go along, their enemy at the moment has no way to predict what they are about to do...or if they think they know what he is going to do, it will turn out wrong.

Of course, TV Tropes doesn't just apply to TV. Most entries have a "Real Life" example, and the Indy Ploy has plenty. For example, it can be used in chess, especially against computer opponents; while you do want to use strategy for most of the game, because of an AI's brute-force method of playing it has the ability to counter it fairly easily. By throwing in some random moves, it makes it difficult for the AI to predict exactly what your overall plan is. Of course, you need to be able to back it up. Doctor Who is also a big contributor to this trope, especially during the reboot where The Doctor spends most of his time making stuff up as he goes along.

More importantly (to me, anyway) is the introduction of game theory: in that dismal corner of the science, an inferior "plan" can always be countered by a better one if the plan parts are all well known. The only way to counter it is to take some random moves, effectively "ruining" the best-laid plans of your rival.

And for those who don't know, this trope is more or less how modern football was created: the forward pass was an unplanned decision to get out of a situation, and its appearance was noted by Johnny Heisman. 

Implicit in all this is that you can't simply act randomly and let it play out; you have to have the ability to improvise and use good judgement. "Random" probably isn't the right word; "unpredictable" is probably closer. Basically, making the "right" decisions without planning ahead will always confound the person you are trying to outwit, because they are assuming that you have a plan. Of course, if you want to bump this trope up to iocane powder-levels of meta, if your rival knows you are not planning anything, that in and of itself is a plan...

Anyway, the entire point of this post is that here is something that includes Indiana Jones, game theory, Doctor Who, and football. It's like someone is reading my mind.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

EmojiMania

A few days ago it was announced that some new emoji had been approved and released by the Unicode Consortium (a very nefarious-sounding organization that seems like it should be holding a slimy oligopoly over global typefaces, but in reality is probably, like, six professors on a message board) for use in teenager's cell phones everywhere. Emoji, of course, are the small graphical icons (commonly smiley faces) that small children people use in text messages and forums online. This has been released to apparently sate the pent-up demand for such brand new graphics as "Pocket Calculator," "Card File Box," and the ever-popular "Notched Right Semicircle With Three Dots."

(As an aside, I'd like to officially register my disapproval of the term "emoji." It sounds artificially exotic, especially since we had a perfectly decent term ("emoticons") that covered the exact same thing. Of course, "emoji" is Japanese in origin, so it's actually realistically exotic--but, still, needlessly so.)

Anyway, since they're updating the emoji emoticon database, I don't see why they shouldn't actually provide what is in demand. We all could use some new icons to graphically represent what we're too lazy to type out while we're driving. I propose the following:

  • Obvious Sarcasm
  • Noncommittal Shrug
  • Regular Snark
  • Millennial-Grade Snark
  • Jacking-off motion
  • Passive-Aggressivness
  • I don't have a response for you but I don't want to not respond because you'll freak out like a little kid so I'm sending this confused smiley face instead
  • Spoiler Alert
  • Generic Disney Princess
  • Bacon Cheeseburger
  • Please don't send me pictures of your wiener
  • I don't know why I'm in trouble but whatever it was it's not my fault
  • I forgot to pick up the kid, like, three hours ago
  • What you just said was pants-soilingly stupid
  • I'm not sure if your last message was serious or not so I'm making a ambiguous face
  • The preceding message is mostly bullshit
  • I screwed up and I'm hoping a tiny graphic will make you not so mad
  • I'm being held hostage please send help
  • Tentacle Porn
  • Yay for whatever major sports thing is going on right now!
  • Don't mention menstruation to Brenda right now
  • Holy shit did that just happen on Game of Thrones
  • I could go for a cigarette
  • I don't understand the cultural reference you just made but I don't want to seen stupid so OK that makes sense
  • And, of course, Crank
I expect to either see a certified notice of completion or a dead fish in my mailbox soon for this effort. I, uh, I really don't know how they roll.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Jar Of Nightmares

We recently had some extreme weather where I live. Thankfully for us, it amounted to little more than random leaves in the yard and some sour wiener dogs, but there was a fairly long stretch of time where I fully expected munchkins, creepy monkeys, and ruby red shoes to be flying through the air.

Anyway, my phone has a handy weather application I have set on the home screen. It shows the current weather and the prediction for the day. It's pretty standard. However, what it also has is an awesome photographic representation of the current weather. I'm sure it is intended to be an at-a-glance shortcut to find out the weather, but for some reason I find the choices they made to be hilarious.

Cloudy: A streetlamp (because London is foggy, you see)
Sunshine: A shining sun. Yawn.
Rain: Jar of Nightmares (see below, and just try and sleep tonight)
Cloudy At Night? I Think? Irish moor.
Snow: Christmas sugar cookies.Yummmm.
Nighttime: The moon. Because "nighttime" is a weather, I guess.


What makes it even better is that it has an animated background, so not only do you look at that jar of nightmares, but you also get ominous rolling clouds in the background, like Cthulhu is lurking about and thinking about starting a lightning bug collection.* 

Maybe I'm just overly amused by it because when the unusual photos come up on my phone it's usually because the weather is miserable. In any case, "Jar Of Nightmares" would be a good name for a horror flick.

*I've just now realized that i will pay good American money for a Cthulhu-based weather app for my phone. Get crackin', hackers!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Goal?

The World Cup is going to start next week, and thus will be my every-four-years declaration that I don't care for soccer.

I realize that, as an American, what I just said was a bit of a tautology; I'm American so of course I don't like soccer. Of course, that's not true; plenty of people here in the US like soccer and approximately 1000% of white suburban kids in this nation played soccer between the ages of 8 and 14. Even Major League Soccer is doing...well enough, anyway, that the entity is modestly profitable (by business standards, not crazy-ass professional sports standards) and have slowly expanded over the past few years.

Why bring this up now? The World Cup, of course, where the entire world pins its hopes and dreams on a contest of skill and determination.

I tried. I really, really tried to like soccer. When American hosted the World Cup in the mid-90s, I tried to follow the team and the entire contest. But I just couldn't. I don't need rapid-fire scoring to hold my interest (I enjoy hockey, after all) and I don't need abstracted chess-like strategy stretched out over four hours of beer commercials and NFL self-promotion. I think it's just the combination of low scoring, slow play, non-flashy dynamics, and lack of a home team. But even when it's the World Cup--where the best that soccer has to offer is put on display--I just can't watch it. I'm not invested enough in the sport to bring myself to care.

And that, of course, is fine. Not everyone has to like everything, of course. But it seems quite the shame; soccer seems like the exact sort of thing that is right up my alley, and I just don't enjoy it at all. And after thirty-odd years of trying, I don't expect that to change any time soon. Good on you if you love it, but until the World Cup starts showing commercials involving hot women and dancing bears I'm probably not coming to your World Cup party.