The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

When you give people freedom, they make surprising choices

Ezra Klein addresses the issue of physician assisted suicide. He is reluctant to accept the legality of it, and he gives some reasons worth considering. He quotes Ezekiel Emanuel who says:
Broad legalization of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia would have the paradoxical effect of making patients seem to be responsible for their own suffering
Rather than being seen primarily as the victims of pain and suffering caused by disease, patients would be seen as having the power to end their suffering by agreeing to an injection or taking some pills; refusing would mean that living through the pain was the patient’s decision, the patient’s responsibility.
Klein sums up the position, which I think really gets to the heart of his concern: "I do buy into Emanuel’s concern that it’ll give the people around them too much choice, and that the long-term consequences of that are unsettlingly unpredictable."

Klein is saying that when you give people freedom, they make surprising and unpredictable decisions, which sometimes are bad decisions. I on the other hand think physician-assisted suicide should be legal. Suicide, for one, should not be restricted because it's your body and your life and you thereby should make the decisions about it. And a physician should be permitted to help, since they can help make the suicide less unpleasant. But, still, at the end of the day you have to have faith that when given freedom people will make the right decisions. Certainly, people will make poor decisions sometimes, but I don't see it as plausible that laws or lawmakers will be able to make consistently better decisions for them. I personally don't think that if physician-assisted suicide becomes legalized it will be anything but a grave decision, but it is doubtless that the results will be unpredictable.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Tennis is better at distinguishing the better from the lesser

The French Open just finished up yesterday with perhaps the two best men's singles players duking it out for the final: Rafael Nadal (ranked #1 right now) and Roger Federer (ranked #3 right now). Unsurprisingly, victory went to Nadal, who's now won 6 of the last 7 French opens and overall dominates on clay courts, winning 227 out of 244 matches played on clay, an astounding 93%. These are two very closely matched top players, but its quite clear that Nadal was the champion, winning 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1. In fact, one of the nice things about tennis is its ability to really sort out even small differences in player ability.

It does this because a full tennis match includes a lot of points. At the bare minimum, a five-set match will include 72 points, but most games include more than twice that many and last usually 2-3 hours. And that's not to mention that these individual points involve, on average several passes over the next and several strokes by both players. What this means is that the probability that one or other player will edge ahead simply from luck alone is very small. Lucky points do happen: player might hit a ball barely in or barely out or catch the net just right to catch his opponent off guard, or translate a wild, reaching shot into a winner or benefit from a bad call. But over the course of a match, involving over a hundred points and 100s of strokes, the probability that one player will significantly get more lucky points than the other is vanishingly small. The only time it's likely to happen is if the game is so close that the players are practically neck and neck. In such cases, a little bit of luck can be just enough to push one player ahead. But in most cases, that little bit of luck is not enough to make any difference. It would take a whole lot of lucky point for a weaker player to be able to edge ahead. It's reminiscent of that quote from Woody Allen's Match Point, when Tom told Chris, the former pro tennis player that he'd seen him play against top players and he held his own for a while. Chris responds: "But as the game goes on, you see how really good they are." In other words, luck or momentum might be on side for a little while, but in the end, their superior skill wins out.

Such is the case with all high-scoring games. In basketball, for example, the typical game involves over 150 points and involves a lot of changes of possession and attempted shots, leading to games that are also seldom decided by luck. When you look at the final score of a basketball game, or especially of a tennis match, you can pretty clearly see how close and how hard fought the game is. A tennis match that is won in straight sets 6-1, 6-3, 6-2 is a decisive victory, whereas a hard fought 7-5, 6-7, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 is obviously a close match.

This is in stark contrast to low scoring games like hockey or, even worse, soccer. As much as I enjoy watching soccer, it can be frustrating to watch games turn on lucky goals or bad calls. I remember watching in frustration during the first round of the 2010 World Cup when the US was prevented from winning their game against Slovenia after a ref disallowed a clear goal. The call was so poor that the ref was actually sent home and didn't officiate any more World Cup games, but that one call was enough to transform an American victory into a tie. On the other hand, it might have been karma after the previous game against England when the US was handed a tie after the English keeper so poorly handled an easy save that it resulted in a goal for the US. This one mistake changed a loss into a tie for the US. Though better teams do tend to win in soccer (the World Cup was won by Spain, who was the favorite going in), luck plays a much bigger factor. Consider that 2 out of the 16 games of the knockout stage in that World Cup were decided by penalty shoot outs. Since FIFA started using penalty shootouts in 1966 there have been 12 world cups, two of which (1994 and 2006) included penalty shootouts in the final game, with an additional three that were decided in added extra time. Such games are close enough that they can go either way, and they occur a large percentage of the time.

The difference between tennis and soccer on this issue is one of degree: in both games better teams tend to win, but in soccer luck plays a larger role. I enjoy watching both games, but I really like the feature of tennis that players fight for many small incremental gains which add up to victory. It results in a better measure of relative ability and means that you can be assured that when a player wins, they really deserve it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

More on Peter Thiel

More commentary on Peter Theiel's fellowship, which I mentioned before. Naomi Schaefer Riley writes in the Washington Post:
Employers may decide that there are better ways to get high school students ready for careers. What if they returned to the idea of apprenticeship, not just for shoemakers and plumbers but for white-collar jobs? College as a sorting process for talent or a way to babysit 18-year-olds is not very efficient for anyone involved. Would students rather show their SAT scores to companies and then apply for training positions where they can learn the skills they need to be successful? Maybe the companies could throw in some liberal arts courses along the way. At least they would pick the most important ones and require that students put in some serious effort. Even a 40-hour workweek would be a step up from what many students are asked to do now.
I think this is something that should go on more often. If more businesses offered genuinely promising students who could easily go to college the option of effectively skipping college and getting directly drafted into the pros, students could save tens of thousands of dollars. College is a good idea for some people, but for others, it's just an expensive piece of paper necessary for career advancement. College is a great experience, but at the prices being offered, it's rather burdensome to spend thirty years paying off the cost of a four year long party.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Dual n-back training

Dual N-Back training has been shown to improve fluid intelligence. N-back training is a memory game where they basically keep feeding you info, for example, they show you a succession of spatial position (or the number of a certain object or a tone) and you have to recall what position you saw n number of steps ago. For example, you could have 2-back training, in which you're given a 3x3 grid. For the first step you're shown a shape in the top-left, then a shape in the bottom-center, then a shape in the right and you have to remember the position you saw two steps before (top-left, in this case) then they show you left and you have to again remember the one two steps before (bottom-center, this time) and then they show you top-center and you again have to remember the one two before (right), and so on. You can increase the number of steps back so that you have to recall 3 back, 4 back, even up to 10 back. Dual n-back training means that you're doing two different memory tasks at once. For example, as at this online app, you simultaneously are tested on spatial and auditory memory.

What it does is train your working memory, which is the memory you have to retain and use information. It's the using part that's most important, since orking memory is not just short-term memory, but usable memory. Fluid intelligence is your ability to solve novel problems, use logic and reasoning, and recognize patterns. Improving working improves fluid intelligence because your brain is able to use more information to reason with and think through a problem or recognize a patter. In short, you're building your conclusions on a wider base of knowledge.

They also found that [dual n-back] training made children less likely to be fooled by tempting, but incorrect, information.
"Psychologically, training made them more conservative," Jonides said.
I don't think "conservative" is the best word here. I'd say the better word would be "skeptical" or "incredulous." In other words, children are more reluctant to jump to conclusions the broader a base of working memory they're using.

Friday, June 3, 2011

If brevity is the soul of wit then long drawn-out stories are the soul of arthouse pretension

Dan Kois in the New York Times complains of experiencing a certain high culture fatigue. He's a movie reviewer and culture critic and he notes that whereas he's long succeeded in force feeding himself slow-moving boring films and television, he's finally reached a point where's he's tired of it and is constantly nagged, while watching this fare, by thoughts that he's got better things to do. Though I can definitely sympathize with him (I went through a many-year period of cultural elitism, watching primarily arthouse films and listening to decidedly modern classical and avant-garde jazz, and I, like him, eventually got tired of digesting this type of art), unlike him, I don't feel guilty about failing to appreciate this type of slow boring film because I don't retain the same high opinion of it as he. In fact, part of what inspired my change in cultural diet is a well-founded skepticism of the supposed highness of this "high art."

It's interesting that Kois starts off his article by comparing his experience to his six-year old daughter watching a fast-paced, densely-packed kids show, Phineas and Ferb. His daughter struggles with the show because it moves too quickly, contains references she doesn't get and has plots that (at least for a six year old) are dizzyingly complex. The problem, though, is that Kois tries to say the experience of his six-year old watching this show is like him watching a slow-paced and meditative film like Solaris and Meek's Cutoff. But the comparison makes no sense. The way he describes Meek's Cutoff (I haven't personally seen it), it sounds like a movie that in no way approaches the type of challenges that Phineas and Ferb presents his daughter. The plot is simplistic; the characters are sparse; one doesn't have to pay close attention to every moment to make sure one doesn't miss something because there's not a lot going on. In fact, it's sounds like his daughter would probably have a lot less trouble following the plot of Meek's Cutoff than Phineas and Ferb (ignoring the fact that the daughter wouldn't get many of the adult themes and relationships and would have no tolerance for the ponderous pace). Solaris (which I have seen) is similar: not a lot happens, there aren't many characters, there's not much to digest. In short, one other way of describing slow-paced and meditative movies is: simplistic.

I would never want to say that the only measure of a movie is complexity, since certainly there can be quality movies that are very simple and slow0paced (I, for one, really like Days of Heaven), but I think it's fair to say complexity and sophistication are virtues of movies and storytelling in general. If we compare these slow-paced arthouse movies to something much more widely praised and fast-paced like the recent The Dark Knight, we see a profound difference in sophistication. The Dark Knight occupies a complex and detailed world, filled with a large cast of characters connected in a dense web of interrelations, and involves a plot which is intricate and complex. In short, it demands a lot of the viewer to take it all in. On an intellectual level this movie is much more engaging and challenging; it requires close attention; it rewards multiple viewings; it has a lot going on. The blunt fact is that The Dark Knight is a much more intellectual movie than Solaris or Meek's Cutoff. Many people may view it as just passive mindless popcorn fare, but this is a mistake. Many of us, including many movie critics really mistake the feeling of mental effort for actual mental effort. Because it's so much more effort to sit through a dull movie people think that it's genuine intellectual effort. But actually the effort that is going on is our brain trying to prevent itself from wandering off because it's so little engaged and seeks to occupy itself with something more engaging. The Dark Knight in contrast seems easy to digest only because the exciting fast-paced nature keeps us glued to the screen such that we more effortlessly absorb all the relevant intricacies. In fact, these deep intellectual engagement is one of the pleasures of complex movies like The Dark Knight, City of God, The Big Sleep, Memento, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential ...

This explains why the vast majority of high art works don't really tend to fare well in the long run. Most people have a really distorted perception of art in the past. Because we now consider classic works to be high art, it's assumed they were always high art. This is definitely not the case. To start with the most obvious example, Shakespeare was not considered high art by his contemporaries. The intellectual elite, the royal courtiers, were primarily engaged in what was considered the more dignified literary pursuit, writing poetry. Theater was considered more entertainment for the masses, and, admittedly, as far as we can tell, most of what was written for the stage in those days (the vast majority of which doesn't survive) was probably pretty horrible and worthy of turning up one's nose. But because only the best of it survives and that theater is mostly viewed culturally prestitigious, we read that perception back into history, forgetting that Shakespeare and contemporaries like Marlowe, Johnson, Webster and Kyd, to people in those days were more like Hitchcock, Spielberg and Nolan in our own day. The elite literature of the Elizabethan era has by no means fallen into obscurity, and the poetry of the likes of Sydney and Spencer is still appreciated, but at the end of the day these high brow artists are left in the shadow of the great low brow Shakespeare. And it's not like Shakespeare is some weird abberation. It's primarily the norm (let's just start listing: Dickens, Twain, Chaucer, Homer, Balzac, Gullivers Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Boccaccio, Ovid, Aristophanes, and on and on).

The trend is reflected in television, with rather sophisticated and complex television shows doing fabulously well. No one would describe Twin Peaks, 24, The Wire, Lost, Mad Men or many other shows as slow or meditative. Their large casts of characters and intricate plots remind one more of the complex worlds of those grand serial novels of the likes of Dickens and Tolstoy. They ask much more of the viewer but don't feel difficult because the give the reader more and are very engaging.

It's also under-appreciated what labors these big budget fast-paced films are. Those big budgets are going towards pizza and doughnuts; they're going towards large masses of skilled professionals in everything from cinematography, to casting, to special effects. Not to mention that the pace of a scene tends to be inversely proportional to the effort expended in making it. Fast paced action scenes, because of the superabundance of cuts and special effects, tend to be ponderous to produce, whereas nice, quiet talking scenes tend to be much easier and quicker.

Kois makes the comparison of these slow art house films to eating vegetable, which I think is an unintentionally apt metaphor. Vegetables as a food, we must admit are of limited nutritive value and caloric content; they serve a useful dietary purpose, but you certainly couldn't live off of vegetables alone. The real meat and potatoes of a film-goers diet, though, are the truly, largely mainstream, big budget films, the movies that tend to endure and remain popular for decades to come.

What this is not to say is that popular mainstream movies are necessarily better or that complex movies are necessarily better. Truth be told, most popular film is entirely forgettable. I picked The Dark Knight for a very good reason – because it stands out among popular films. Truth is that, for example, of the hundreds of movies made in the 40s, only a handful of these movies are still watched and the same will happen to the vast majority of films made these days – they will be lost to obscurity. What I am saying is that the high-art/low-art decision is overly simplistic. Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott responded to Kois "In Defense of the Slow and the Boring," but their response is overly simplistic, criticizing summer movies of being boring since they're frequently very conventional and cliche. But this hardly vindicates the slow and boring, which just manages to be boring in a different way. In the long run, the art work that persists as great is generally those works that can combine a certain popular appeal with genuine originality and sophistication.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Effectiveness Research

Bryan Caplan quotes with approval the NY Times on using effectiveness research to improve medicare treatment:
The British control costs in part by having the will to empower a hard-nosed agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Experience (N.I.C.E.), to study treatments and declare some ineffective.
Even better, use clinical evidence evaluations of the British Medical Journal. They've classified more than 3,000 treatments as either unknown effectiveness (51 percent), beneficial (11 percent), likely to be beneficial (23 percent), trade-off between benefits and harms (7 percent), unlikely to be beneficial (5 percent) and likely to be ineffective or harmful (3 percent).
Of course, this puts a lot of faith in the accuracy and reliability of such research. John P. A. Ioannidis notes recently in Scientific American of "An Epidemic of False Claims" in medical research:
False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine. Many studies that claim some drug or treatment is beneficial have turned out not to be true. We need only look to conflicting findings about beta-carotene, vitamin E, hormone treatments, Vioxx and Avandia. Even when effects are genuine, their true magnitude is often smaller than originally claimed.
The Atlantic did a long article featuring Ioannidis and his research a few months ago, stating:
He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed
The problems certainly aren't intractable, and Ioannidis has been working on developing better methods for evaluating the quality of research. But the blunt fact is that good medical research is hard. It requires long term studies with lots of participants, which is not only super expensive, but also super time-consuming. Additionally, the last thing you want to do to improve the quality of research is raise the incentive for people to game the results by making the massive amounts of potential government funding dependent on positive research results.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Informed Opinion on Ethical Questions

Art Carden over at the Mises Institute complains that with many issues that many people are simply ignorant of the facts behind many of the opinions they take. As an economist, he highlights economics issues:

As an economist, I think the fundamental rhetorical issue is as basic as it gets: most critics of free-market capitalism simply don’t understand how competitive markets work. And, as far as I can tell, many have never bothered to try. It is not that the average commentator or critic arguing passionately in favor of minimum wages or price controls thinks that disemployment effects and shortages are sacrifices worth making in the pursuit of a larger social goal. Again as far as I can tell, the average commentator or critic denies that such a trade-off exists.

Just to take the issue of minimum wage, it's one of these issues that most everyone simply supports without realizing that among economists minimum way is quite controversial, with probably a majority of economists supporting its abolition. The point Carden is making is not that if people knew what he knew, they'd all agree with him (there are well-informed economists who do support minimum wage), but that it's irresponsible to be ignorant of these issues that are raised. If more people were aware that minimum wage raises unemployment for low wage workers, especially poor minorities, I think we'd actually see some serious debate on the question.

Or as he quotes Rothbard as saying:

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a “dismal science.” But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

Many people support things, sometimes even passionately because it, well, just seems like common sense that it's a good idea.

Work in Progress

I uploaded the first five chapters of a work in progress, which is tentatively titled The Artisian Clan. The short description I'd give it is a distantly-post-apocalyptic, technologically-primitive sci-fi fantasy-esque epic. It's about political struggle, religion and war in a sprawling mointaneous civilization. I've written a mere 22 chapters and some 36,000 words and feel I'm less than halfway done. By my standards that's pretty long (my first novel is around 50,000 words and my second around 30,000). I'll upload more as I edit and revise further chapters. We'll see how things pan out.