I’m Back

I’ll bet most of you didn’t even know I was gone, did you? Cindy, Amy, and I spent the last five days visiting family in Michigan, with a brief stop at Niagara Falls on the way back. The Canadian side is definitely a lot better than the American side, and I didn’t hear anything about a guy I’d spoken to the night before jumping over the falls like happened last time I visited the area. Amy is an amazingly good travel baby, and a real crowd pleaser. I’ll post some pictures later on, and maybe some sound recordings of her new repertoire as well.

Weird CPU Behavior

I’ve been doing some stuff at work that involves counting CPU cycles, which caused me to write a little test program to get some baselines for how many cycles we should expect certain constructs to consume. So, I wrote a little test program that does the following:

read cycle counter
if (integer compare) {
	read counter again
	print difference
else {
	read counter again
	print difference
repeat the whole thing

The results are not quite what you might have expected. Read on for more gory details if you’re into that sort of thing.

Horatio Alger Revisited

There’s an interesting section in Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country about the “Horatio Alger Myth” in the US. His version is a variant of the common observation that people tend to “vote their aspirations” instead of voting their reality: people who believe that they will one day be rich often vote for policies that benefit the rich (including their future fantasy selves) even if those policies hurt them in the present. Therefore, by feeding them a steady diet of Great American Success Stories it’s possible to make people vote against their own self-interest.

I think there’s an even more insidious aspect to this, though. Due to the prevalence of such stories a certain percentage of people believe that if they show some entrepreneurial spirit and work hard they not only can become rich but must become rich. Never mind that no amount of hard work can overcome the handicap of making or doing something that people just won’t pay that much for. Never mind that no economy is perfectly efficient; even if the market exists you might not find it or be able to penetrate it. No, say the self-imagined capitalist heroes; if I put in the time I deserve to be rich and if I’m not then it’s somebody’s fault. It’s a pretty amazing sense of entitlement coming from people who deny every other kind of entitlement. What do people like this do when they feel they’ve been cheated? One is that they become very angry, and become ever more strident in their denunciation of the people – liberals, generally – who they feel have robbed them of their supposedly-deserved success. The other is that they decide that if they’ve been made a victim by the rules then the rules don’t apply to them. That’s where Ken Lay and Bernard Ebbers and Richard Scrushy (whose portrayal on 60 Minutes last night initiated this chain of thought) come from.

By giving people an unrealistically positive portrayal of the odds for success in the entrepreneurial world, we guarantee that a certain number of them will turn into the jerks who infest our civic dialog and cheaters who fill our court dockets. We need to work harder to make sure that people know the relationship between risks and rewards. If you want to shoot for the really big money you must understand that the odds are slim, and be prepared to accept that your failure might not be anybody else’s fault. If you can’t handle that, you should accept the likelihood of lower rewards in return for lower risk. Nobody has a right to both low risk and great reward.

Mood and Recall

Apparently being sad is good for your memory.

People in a positive mood such as happiness were shown under experimental conditions to have relatively unreliable memories, and show poorer judgement and critical thinking skills.

By contrast, those who experienced a negative mood such as sadness were shown to provide more reliable eyewitnesses accounts and exercise superior thinking and communication skills.

One implication is that striving for a pleasant environment in schools is counterproductive; if you really want students to remember stuff you need to make them unhappy. Yes, my tongue was firmly in my cheek when I wrote that.

Lack of Original Thought

Jeff Jacoby has an interesting column in today’s Boston Globe about price gouging and why we shouldn’t discourage it.

IMAGINE a system that could instantly respond to a calamity like Hurricane Charley by mobilizing suppliers to speed urgently needed resources to the victims. Imagine that such a system could quickly attract the out-of-town manpower needed for cleanup and repairs, while seeing to it that existing supplies were neither recklessly squandered nor hoarded. Imagine that it could prompt thousands of men and women to act in the public interest, yet not force anyone to do anything against his will.

Actually, there’s no need to imagine. The system already exists. Economists refer to it as the law of supply and demand. Unfortunately, too many journalists and politicians call it by a more pejorative and destructive name: “price-gouging.”

He has an interesting point. It would be more interesting still if it weren’t so eerily similar to one made by Mark Kleiman three days ago, though.

The textbook analysis has a lot to be said for it: not only does the higher price encourage people to use as little as they can of the temporarily scarce good and encourage potential suppiers to spend what they need to spend in order to rush new supplies to the market, the prospect of higher prices encourages stockpiling in advance of potential disasters by merchants and consumers alike. (Since no one can cause a hurricane, there’s no reason to fear perverse incentives.)

I’m not accusing Jacoby of plagiarism, though others have done so in the past and not without cause. However, it does seem like someone who’s paid for their original insight could do a lot better than to get their ideas from right-wing chain letters (the “fates of the signers” incident that got him suspended from the Globe for four months) or from weblogs. Is the laissez-tricher right so incapable of formulating an original argument that they must resort to reprinting as though it were original one that’s handed to them by someone like Kleiman? The answer, apparently, is that they are.

Jellybean Challenge

I’m really starting to get annoyed about this. The Wisdom of Crowds Jelly Bean Challenge was supposed to announce a winner on August 16 (Monday) but there’s nothing on the site to indicate that anything of the sort actually happened. It’s not like I expect to win or anything, but if you try to drum up interest with a stunt like this you should repay that interest by doing what you said you would.

Amy Sounds

Just for a change of pace, here are a couple of recordings of how Amy sounds. They’re from a voice recorder so the quality’s not all that great, but they’re kind of fun anyway. Here are some random sounds and a good squeal. I’ll add to the collection as I’m able.

Lost in Translation

Imagine for a moment that you’re a non-English speaker installing a new operating system on your PC. At a certain point it asks for some personal information, specifically your gender, and gives you the following choices (in your language):

  • Not specified.
  • Male.
  • Rhubarb.

Wouldn’t your jaw drop? Wouldn’t you gasp in amazement at how badly the OS vendor managed to botch the translation? Well, it’s still not as bad as what actually happened in a Spanish-language version of Windows. Yeah, “unfortunate error in translation” pretty much fits the bill.

Tall Blacks

Never a big fan of the culture that seems to surround basketball in the US, I’ve been indulging in a bit of schadenfreude over the travails of the US team in Athens. Now it looks like my other homeland is providing some satisfaction of a different sort.

Revenge was gained in the sweetest form as the New Zealand men’s basketball team turned the tables on world champions Serbia and Montenegro with a last-second 90-87 win at the Athens Olympics today.

Would I like to see New Zealand play the United States? You bet.

For Bill

One of my fellow staff members on Whistle Stopper passed away recently. We were poles apart ideologically, but I could still recognize that he was a man of great determination and deep commitment to his family. I hope nobody minds if I link to a little picture of him, as a form of remembrance.

Bill and son

RIP, Bill, and thanks for the memories.