Monday, August 31, 2009

survival tip

A recent paper* turns the modern spotlight of statistics onto that pressing issue of how best to survive a big cat attack. The authors analysed data from 185 puma attacks on humans in North America over more than 100 years. The response was severity of injury, ranging from no injury to death. The predictors were age, group composition and behaviour. I am not sure about age but I am guessing that you shouldn’t go walking by yourself in puma country for a start. The modern data crunch used to reveal the elusive truth was multinomial regression.
Chris Lloyd on Core Economics, the rest here.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

the story behind the election

Andrew Gelman and John Sides have an article in the Boston Review analyzing Obama's victory, here.

radical thought

Probably the most noble thing a publisher can possibly do is provide cheap paperback editions of important texts. All the first editions and Folio press embossed hardbacks in the world are, culturally if not financially, worth less than a single bundle of 1960s Penguin Classics, and the line of low-budget purveyors of enlightenment is a worthy and laudable one. From the Everyman’s Library editions of the 1900s-40s, with their arts & crafts aesthetic, aimed clearly at autodidacts rather than scholars, to the more famous and, recently, highly fetishised Pelicans and Penguins of the 40s-70s, this is a story of profit, no doubt, but also of human emancipation through mass production. ...

Owen Hatherley on Verso's Radical Thinkers: Series 4 in 3:AM Magazine, here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

that clinking clanking sound again

Greg Butler has drawn my attention to an article in the NYT on Kickstarter, a new method for raising funds for the arts, here.

Why didn't they ask Gelman?

Reformers like Cerf, Klein, Weisberg, and even Secretary Duncan often use the term “value-added scores” to refer to how they would quantify the teacher evaluation process. It is a phrase that sends chills down the spine of most teachers’-union officials. If, say, a student started the school year rated in the fortieth percentile in reading and the fiftieth percentile in math, and ended the year in the sixtieth percentile in both, then the teacher has “added value” that can be reduced to a number. “You take that, along with observation reports and other measures, and you really can rate a teacher,” Weisberg says.

Steven Brill, The Rubber Room, in the New Yorker.

A student. Well, no, Mr Weisberg, you really can't.

One can't help feeling that Mr Weisberg, Mr Brill and the New Yorker would all benefit from the services of a statistician. (Not that they actually need someone like AG for this kind of thing, but it would be infra dig, presumably, to call on someone who had merely mastered the material in an introductory course for undergraduates.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009


He tried to show what it was like to read a book and what the thinking mind looked like in the act of writing.

He wrote compellingly about effort, about difficulty, about struggle, about failure, about incoherency, about instability, tension, waste, self-consciousness, incompleteness, process . . .

Mithridates on the critic Richard Poirier, who has just died.

codes of the underworld

The signaling problems faced by criminals are unusual in the following regard. On one hand they wish to signal a certain untrustworthiness, namely that they are criminals in the first place. This is useful for both meeting other criminals and also for intimidating potential victims. On the other hand, the criminals wish to signal that they are potentially cooperative, for the purpose of working with other criminals. Sending these dual signals isn't easy and Gambetta well understands the complexity of the task at hand.

Tyler Cowen of MR, on Diego Gambetta's Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

proportioned like an egge

In the river of Panuco there is a fish like a calfe, the Spanyards call it a Mallatin, hee hath a stone in his head, which the Indians use for the disease of the Collicke, in the night he commeth on land, and eateth grasse. I have eaten of it, and it eateth not much unlike to bacon. From thence we were sent to Mexico, which is 90 leagues from Panuco. In our way thither, 20 leagues from the sea side, I did see white Crabs running up & downe the sands, I have eaten of them, and they be very good meat. There groweth a fruit which the Spanyards call Avocottes, it is proportioned like an egge, and as blacke as a cole, having a stone in it, and it is an excellent good fruit. There also groweth a strange tree which they call Magueis, it serveth them to many uses, below by the root they make a hole, whereat they do take out of it twise every day a certaine kind of licour, which they seeth in a great kettle, till the third part be consumed, & that it wax thick, it is as sweet as any hony, and they do eat it...

At this time, and in this ship, were also sent to be presented to the king of Spaine, two chestes full of earth with ginger growing in them, which were also sent from China, to be sent to the king of Spaine. The ginger runneth in the ground like to liccoras, the blades grow out of it in length and proportion like unto the blades of wild garlicke, which they cut every fifteene dayes, they use to water them twise a day, as we doe our herbes here in England, they put the blades in their pottages, and use them in their other meates, whose excellent savour and tast is very delightfull, and procureth a good appetite.

The Travels of Job Hortop, in Hakluyt's Voyages

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

mind the gap

American conservatives have, I gather, been attacking the NHS. (Guardian)

There's something they somehow miss.

If you live in America and happen not to have health insurance, it's complicated to organise treatment. By 'complicated' I mean that you might well be able to clear the bureaucratic hurdles if you had spent the last 6 months training for a marathon, were in peak physical and mental condition - but if you are, um, you know, sick, you are unlikely to have mental and physical stamina required.

In 2000 I had a breakdown. I lay on a bed in my mother's house, unable to move. What was needed was, I suppose, some sort of medication. I had no health insurance in the US. To organise the required medication it was necessary to make phone calls. Phone calls I might well have been able to make had I not been in the middle of a breakdown. I did not have the necessary social skills to take this on from a state of insanity, but there was something I could cope with. I could book a ticket online to Britain; I could get on the plane. Once in Britain, all I had to do was walk into a clinic.

The treatment offered by the NHS was flawed. I was living in short-term accommodation. I had no permanent address. I was offered cognitive therapy at the Whitechapel, in addition to the medication prescribed; by the time I turned up for my first appointment for cognitive therapy, I had moved. As it turned out, I had moved out of the district covered by the Whitechapel; I was no longer eligible for its cognitive therapy programme; it was necessary to start again from scratch. It would have been simple enough for the clinic to give me a map with the boundaries of its district; if they had done so, I would have taken care to find a new room within its boundaries. They didn't; the results were not good.

If I'd stayed in the US, on the other hand, I would not be alive today.

eliminative naturalism

K-Punk on Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint.

Some of Dick's most powerful passages are those in which there is an ontological interrugnum: a traumatic unworlding is not yet given a narrative motivation; a unresolved space that awaits reincorporation into another Symbolic regime. In Time Out Of Joint, the interregnum takes the form of an extraordinary scene in which the seemingly dull objects of quotidian naturalism - the gas station and the motel - act almost like a negative version of the lamp-post at the edge of the Narnian forest. Unlike Lewis's lamp-post, these objects do not mark the threshold of a new world, a new Symbolic system; they constitute instead staging posts on the way towards the desert of the Real. When the edge of town gas stations come into focus, the background furniture of literary realism suddenly looms into the foreground, and there is a moment of Harmanian object-epipany, in which ready-to-hand, peripheral vision-familiarity transforms into uncanny opacity:

    The houses became fewer. The truck passed gas stations, tawdry cafes, ice cream stands and motels. The dreary parade of motels ... as if, Ragle thought, we had already gone a thousand miles and were just now entering a strange town. Nothing is so alien, so bleak and unfriendly, as the strip of gas stations - cut-rate gas stations - and motels at the edge of your own city. You fail to recognise it. And, at the same time, you have to grasp it to your bosom. Not just for one night, but for as long as you intend to live where you live.

    But we don't intend to live here any more. We're leaving. For good.

It's a scene in which Edward Hopper seems to devolve into Beckett, as the natural(ist) landscape gives way to an emptied out monotony, a minimal, quasi-abstract space that is depeopled but still industrialized and commercialised.

The rest here,

Advantage Goliath

Tesco maintains that it will buy local produce "wherever possible". But when its representatives were challenged on this point, they said that local suppliers would have to sell their produce to the company as a whole. It would be trucked to the nearest distribution centre – now 120 miles away in Avonmouth – and then trucked back across Wales to Machynlleth. Incredibly, Tesco proposes that its new store will reduce traffic on our congested roads. It appears to be relying on a radical misinterpretation of the evidence.

But the real issue is this: if the county council turns it down, Tesco can appeal. The cost to the council would be astronomical. As John Sweeney, leader of North Norfolk district council observed, Tesco "are too big and powerful for us. If we try and deny them they will appeal, and we cannot afford to fight a planning appeal and lose. If they got costs it would bankrupt us." Hardly any local authority is prepared to take this risk. Tesco can keep appealing and resubmitting, using its vast funds until it gets what it wants. Objectors, by contrast, have no right of appeal. The inequality of arms means that we scarcely stand a chance.

George Monbiot on the irresistible rise of Tesco. In this case in Machynlleth, a small market town in mid-Wales.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I vividly remember playing in Mayflower Park, the windswept public space that divides the city's dead and 'alive' docks, on my birthday. I was, being a child of the 80s, fairly obsessed with robots, specifically Transformers. My parents, were they contributors to my comments box, would tell you, unprompted, the story about me coming home from nursery school claiming we'd been told about 'this robot called God' (well how else to explain it?).

Owen Hatherley (in a longer piece on the architecture of Southampton), here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

fourth seeks three

I may have to retract my dismissal of bridge as a game with relevance to the world of finance. Warren Buffett apparently thinks otherwise.

On one occasion [Buffett] is reported to have said: "I wouldn’t mind going to jail if I had three cellmates who played bridge".

[know the feeling - thought it would depend how well they played bridge]

Buffett himself says about bridge: "It’s got to be the best intellectual exercise out there. You’re seeing through new situations every ten minutes…In the stock market you don’t base your decisions on what the market is doing, but on what you think is rational….Bridge is about weighing gain/loss ratios. You’re doing calculations all the time."( Forbes June 2,1997)

On another occasion he described the similarities between bridge and investment as follows: "The approach and strategies are very similar in that you gather all the information you can and then keep adding to that base of information as things develop. You do whatever the probabilities indicated based on the knowledge that you have at that time, but you are always willing to modify your behaviour or your approach as you get new information. In bridge, you behave in a way that gets the best from your partner. And in business, you behave in the way that gets the best from your managers and your employees."

Commenting on the new challenge match in June, Buffett said: "I spend twelve hours a week - a little over 10% of my waking hours - playing the game. Now I am trying to figure out how to get by on less sleep in order to fit in a few more hands.

2006 interview quoted by Jonathan Davis at

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

less unprintable than previously supposed

Languagehat has buried a terrific offer in the Comments section.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the US publishers of Uglier than a Monkey's Armpit did manage to include the names of both authors of on the cover of a book with two authors (a feat we might once, in our innocence, have taken for granted), but absentmindedly forgot to include the introduction by Steve "Languagehat" Dodson - a feature unique to the US edition, which for fans of LH's indispensable blog must be one of the chief attractions of the book. The introduction will appear when the book is reprinted; a slight problem with this is, of course, that it offers a strong incentive to fans to wait for the reprint, thereby, presumably, postponing the appearance of this highly desirable edition.

Dodson, anyway, has now generously offered to send a copy of the missing introduction as a Word document to anyone who buys the book (he can be reached, obviously, via the blog). Not only is this a great offer, it is a chance for readers to pick up a collector's item! The first US edition, minus the introduction, augmented with a genuine Word document from Steve Dodson! Our very dear friends at Amazon can provide the first half of this dynamic duo for the unbeatable price of $10.15, here.

(The name of that book in full, with full complement of authors: Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit: Untranslatable Insults, Put-downs, and Curses from around the World, by Stephen Dodson and Roger Vanderplank.)

Some examples of entries can be found in an earlier post on LH, here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

life, the universe and everything

A friend of mine once put it succinctly: “Physics is all about findingout which variables you know and which variable you want, and then searching through your formula sheet for an equation that has all of those letters in it.”


Explaining that, for those who immediately liked physics in high school, this was what they liked about it.

When G&L went to college he began to find that what interested him was the picture that began to emerge of how the universe worked. Hence this terrific blog. Here's G&L on the most important idea in science according to Feynman, who said: I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.

(Those who love physics for the fun of hunting for the variable will be aggrieved, very aggrieved.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Infinite Thought is off-message. Here, here.

Do I need to have a kid to understand Antichrist properly? I'm not sure. But I don't think procreation is a topic that should be solely restricted to those who happen to have done it. I may not understand the desire to have my own kid, but I do understand the human need to look after someone, believe it or not. If I move somewhere bigger than a shared one-bed flat (soon), I hope in a while (if I pass the tests) to be in a position to foster whoever could use it. No doubt I've been corrupted by the abstractions of my discipline or am monstrous, or something, but I can see no good reason to have one's own child if there are other children already existing in the world who need looking after. I'm not even talking about adoption, where so often it seems that parents, perhaps understandably, often seek to replicate the genetic-parent newborn situation as closely as possible - I'm talking about helping, as realistically as possible, and with as few illusions as possible, existing, troubled, human beings out for a period of time, the kind of child people don't generally want much to do with, older, unwell or troubled. I've no doubt that in its own way this is just as ideological as having your own kid, but it just makes so much more sense to me. If you care about humanity at all - and in a convoluted combination of intuition and rationalism I most definitely do - then why not do this, given that it's a situation that exists for lots of kids. There simply aren't enough people there to look after people that are already in the world. Couldn't we, as best as we could, sort this out, well, first?

Jenny Turner is off-message. Here.

Adrienne Rich was never more prophetic than when she wrote, in 1977, that for her, pregnancy was like being "a traveller in an airport where her plane is several hours delayed, who leafs through magazines she would never normally read, surveys shops whose contents do not interest her"

Sara Megilbow, a literary agent in Boulder, is not. Here.

“The blessing isn’t that I was willing to help,” Sara says. “The blessing is that they’re getting their genetic child. Details be darned, they wanted this child.”

how to build a better blog

Maira Kalman at the NYT on Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Uncle Cobbley and all, why is here no match for there? anyway, over there.