Friday, 26 March 2010

Superfreak Is Super Boring

As you may, or more likely may not remember, I have recently written about a couple of popular books on economics. One turned out to be more a book on popular economics, and the other I liked much better, but that's another matter altogether. You can go back to that post and read about that.

Here, I want to follow up on a promise I made, and that is to read and give my opinion on the sequel to Freakonomics, the not-so-originally titled Superfreakonomics. Unfortunately, I must admit can fulfil my promise only up to a point. The reason? I gave up on Superfreakonomics after reading a little bit more than half of it.

Yes, it was that boring. I rarely give up on books, especially not after going through the effort (pain?) of reading a half. What gives then? Read on...

While my main gripe with Freakonomics was that, while it did cleverly ferret out surprising explanations for some interesting problems of everyday life, it did not really bother with the logical next step of, having identified the problem, proposing a possible solution (or at least solutions). The word gimmicky comes to mind, unfortunately.

Well, the sequel, Superfreakonomics, continues in a similar vein. However, where the Freakonomics consisted mostly of original research by Levitt, its sequel reads more like a review of other people's interesting research over the past decade or so. I kid you not. Being a voracious follower of news of all kinds, but especially in areas of natural sciences, politics, and economics, I can vouch that, in the past decade or so, I have come across most, if not all, things found in the book, and not from the pen of either Levitt or Dubner. That Superfreakonomics again fail to offer any kind of serious proposal for solving problems it "identifies" (or rather, recounts other people's research into them) is almost beside the point. What solutions are proposed are again not Levitt's nor Dubner's, unless of the off-the-cuff, jovial kind.

And that is why I have eventually decided not to waste any more time on Superfreakonomics. Whatever is in the second half of it I have either already read about, or am bound to read about sometime in the future, and from the horses mouth, too, if you want. There are better, and more important books I want to read, and now can start on having discarded Superfreakonomics.

Even if one such book is The 120 Days Of Sodom, by the venerable Marquis de Sade. At least it is a classic, and I doubt that Freakonomics, Super or otherwise will ever be.

If you do not spend as much time reading about stuff as I do, you may still find both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics interesting, even useful. Just don't expect that they'll offer any way out of the problems they (or others, in case of Superfreakonomics) have so cleverly identified.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Diaspora, The Fifth Pillar

Belgrade political weekly Vreme has, on 25 March 2010, published and article where certain Miodrag Kreculj, from Munich, Germany, proposes a reform of the Serbian Parliament which would see it include 25 MPs from "diaspora" (i.e. Serbian citizens living outside Serbia, ex-pats in other words) in his reformed Parliament of 175 seats (the current one has 250). Since I have certain opinions on the matter I decided to fire off a reader's comment. I have no idea if Vreme will publish my comment. If they do, I will update this page. Until then, here is what I wrote (to the best of my translation skills)...

The Parliament in which one in seven delegates represents precisely nobody living in the country in question (and who themselves live somewhere else) is at best unfair, and at worst a dangerous place.

Practical problems: How do MPs living abroad take part in the working of the parliament? Should they move back to Serbia for the duration of their mandate? Would they still be "diaspora" in that case? Or should the state cover their (astronomical) travel expenses just like for all the other MPs? How many sessions they'd be able (would have to) attend? Maybe their attendance (and I'm afraid contribution, too) will be entirely virtual? They could watch sessions on TV (are they still televised in Serbia?) and then e-mail in their vote. Or they could empower someone else to vote for them (it has been done, albeit for "tourists", and no, it is not legal)?

Isn't 15% of "foreign" MPs patronising for the "natives"? A group of 25 MPs is a force to be reckoned with, especially if acting in unison, and can easily become a "king maker". It could easily prop up or demolish governments, vote in or sink laws. All the while none of them would be in any way affected by any of their actions in parliament (they would risk not being re-elected, but then all MPs do). Their lives are governed by the laws of entirely different countries!

All in all, a system unfair, impractical, and prone to all sorts of foul play. To say nothing about the feelings of the "natives" whose lives are suddenly (hugely) influenced by people who decided to live theirs elsewhere (in a presumably "better" place").

It is one thing acting as an (unpaid) ambassador, cultural, scientific, or economic attaché, and entirely different having (demanding, even!) the right to rule the life of a country we left thinking the other one will be better (for any given value of "better"). I did it myself, and it has now been almost a decade in which I have been doing the former, hopefully well, while the latter I wouldn't wish upon anyone, not even myself. Especially not myself. I certainly wouldn't stand for ex-pats sitting in British parliament (luckily they can't, as far as I know). In exactly the same way I wouldn't wish upon Serbian people to be ruled by someone living in United Kingdom, even if they are a hundred times Serbian, too. And especially if they're like me. I think they wouldn't like me as a Serbian MP at all.

Now, since I mentioned UK, it may be good to remind of, and quote, that slogan used by American colonists in their protest against British rule at the end of 18th century: no taxation without representation. I am fully convinced that in a modern and fair world the opposite must hold true as well: no representation without taxation, where "taxation" also stands for "residence". Power hungry, and some obviously are, should move to the country they aim to lead. Otherwise, they are running a risk of being seen as an "occupying" force by their own people....

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Scrooge vs Freak

I've recently read two popular books on economics. Maybe it's better said they were two books on popular economics. At least one had a certain whiff of this latter, but both were most definitely popular.

As far as I can tell, the first of the two, Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt, (it was actually written by a journalist
Stephen J. Dubner, but the science behind it is Levitt's only), was much, much more popular, or at least talked about. It is also see why. It mostly tackles issues that have high emotional content (abortion, parenting, drugs, and so on), and turns them on their head as the way we understand their inner workings go.

It is well written, and I have no doubt factually and scientifically correct. There's quite a few ah! moments in it. It really does seem that some important issues are usually seen from the perspective that is most likely wrong. An example: recent fall in crime in the US has more to do with less children being born in bad conditions as a direct result of abortion being legalised after Roe vs Wade.

Precious sentence does absolutely no justice to the issue, so do find a book and read for yourself. It is, all in all, a compelling and interesting reading, even if you may not necessarily like, or agree with it.

The other one Scroogenomics, by Joel Waldogel (interesting how he does not seem to "deserve" a Wikipedia page), also treats a subject that is so commonplace we all (and that means, not just the economists) think we know all there is to know about it: gift giving, and especially at that frenzied date which is Christmas (or equivalent ones for other religions, or even atheists).

This book, not unlike Freakonomics, turns a closely held belief, the one that gift giving, or at least the spending and a boost to economy it is supposed to give, increases the net value in a society. Again, I am nowhere nearly good enough to be able to convey this to you, so again, go get the book and read it (or at least borrow it from your friendly local library).

But this post is not so much about the topics covered by either of the books (i.e. it is not a real review of either one), and nor it is going to discuss whether the conclusions, or even the raw data, behind them are correct (I believe they are, both of them). What I wanted to point out about them is their relative value to the society. I want to ask two questions of the books, and see what kind of answer I get.

The first question is a fairly simple one, and both books fare quite well on the answer to it. yes, what is written in both is a good, useful, even if unnerving look at the state of our society. You may not like what you read in them, but you'll probably have to admit it is correct, and calls for some change in how we go about making the world a better place.

The second question derives directly from the first, or more accurately it concerns the answer we got. Here it is:

Having so nicely told us how the world may not be quite as it seems, and more worryingly, quite as the bunch of people we elect or employ to run it for us think, will you be so kind to at least give us a rough pointer towards how to to things differently? How to do them better, now we know where are perceptions went wrong?

Unfortunately, only one book actually gives a good, solid answer to this, and that book is Scroogenomics. Freakonomics, on the other hand throughout its pages maintains something of an approach that I keep thinking of as "entertainment", and that only because I want to refrain from using the term "sensationalist".

It is to be known that I actually agree with pretty much every bit of analysis it offers. It is also to be known that throughout it (or at least throughout the final two thirds of it) I was having to fight the feeling of being cheated. And I don't mean cheated by whoever failed to see things as they probably really are, i.e. as they are described in the book. Oh, no.

I was feeling cheated by being told all these clever analyses, and denied as much as a word about how the author thinks they could be put to use to right at least some of the wrongs he ferrets out. I really, really struggled to get to the last page, and on every single one of those pages I was denied the most important thing one expects such book to provide.

It is all well and good pointing out what doesn't work well. It is, of course, even better explaining exactly why it doesn't work well. But having so cleverly figured out these things, why not at least try and make at least a little attempt at offering an alternative?

In Freakonomics, I actually I think I know why. It is quite obvious that the book came from (or was later massaged into) a series of newspaper or magazine articles. This means it had quite a lot of exposure, and the views of the author (not authors, I don't subscribe to acknowledging ghost writers) will be seen, and commented upon by great many people. Much more, in fact, than there are readers of most book, and especially the ones on economics, popular or not. Being so exposed also means that you will be guaranteed to antagonise, anger, even enrage, quite a lot of people. What this means in the final analysis is that there may be a large backlash (the book covers topics that would anger a huge swathe of population). A large backlash will probably mean less sales, given how controversial the book is. So why do it then? Let's just poke a lot of people in the eye (there are a lot of people who actually like being poked in the eye, i.e. enraged by something), but let's stop short of antagonising them fully by telling them how they could change (the ones poked hardest tend to be the ones most in need of changing). End result? A cute little book, telling a few inconvenient truths, but stopping short of really trying to offer a way out. And that is what poked
me in the eye. But I'm in the distinct minority, so it doesn't really matter. Or does it.

Now, the other book I told you about, Scroogenomics, actually, and on pretty much every page, follows its unexpected and unpleasant analyses by at least some ideas about how the world might be different, maybe better, if we did things differently. I firmly believe that any book, any human effort, which goes to the trouble of finding out, and pointing out, how things are not as good as they may be, has to also offer an alternative, and brave both the public outrage, and the risk of getting it wrong.

It seem that the latter may also be a big part of Freakonomics not following this model. In the first part the author spend quite a lot of time chastising the criminologists and others who made wrong analyses, and offered wrong remedies for the rising, or at least high, crime rates. What's the chance the author wanted to avoid giving advice, and hence in a way making predictions, and then being found to be wrong? With analyses he was on a much firmer ground. After all, the numbers do not lie, provided you look at them with an honest eye.

So, in my imaginary battle of Scrooge vs Freak, the Scrooge wins, hands down. Not unlike in real fiction (I love that: "real fiction"). At the end of his story, the Scrooge sees the world as it really is, and changes - for the better. Freaks, on the other hand tend to stay freaks. Well, there's sometimes the possibility of corrective surgery, and I guess that may be what Freakonomics could do with.

I will freely admit I did not (yet) read Superfreakonomics. Maybe it's better. Once I read it (and I will, eventually) I will make sure I come back here and tell you what I found. I have no problem with people, Scrooges and others, getting better. It is only to be hoped for.

After all, we all know that the leopard can change its shorts...

Friday, 19 March 2010

Faux Goodbye To Joel

Today is the first day of faux retirement of the venerable Joel Spolsky. He first announced he's about to stop blogging in his Inc. column. Then he also wrote a nice little piece on his original blog, Joel on Software. I must admit I much more enjoyed the latter. Every now and then I go and revisit some of the best articles he wrote. You'll be well advised to do the same, even if you know nothing about software, and similar.

Luckily, and unsurprisingly Joel will not completely disappear form the face of the Internet. We'll still be honoured by an odd missive on Joel on Software. Even more luckily, he also renounced, and in no uncertain terms, the abomination that is Twitter. I've also partaken of that particular apple, and I could not agree more with Joel's brilliant paragraph from his last "retirement" post. It is so good, I won'e even try to do anything but quote it here in its entirety:

Although I appreciate that many people find Twitter to be valuable, I find it a truly awful way to exchange thoughts and ideas. It creates a mentally stunted world in which the most complicated thought you can think is one sentence long. It’s a cacophony of people shouting their thoughts into the abyss without listening to what anyone else is saying. Logging on gives you a page full of little hand grenades: impossible-to-understand, context-free sentences that take five minutes of research to unravel and which then turn out to be stupid, irrelevant, or pertaining to the television series Battlestar Galactica. I would write an essay describing why Twitter gives me a headache and makes me fear for the future of humanity, but it doesn’t deserve more than 140 characters of explanation, and I’ve already spent 820.

Add on top of that all sort of spam emanating from this horrible outlet, and also a host of security issues it has, and you can fully appreciate why a lot of people are shunning the thing.

But I don't want to morph this into a tirade against Twitter. This post is truly in honour of Joel Spolsky and all he's done to the betterment of the software industry, and the world in general. It is a shame he'll stop doing it in exactly the same way as in the last ten years, but I have not a shred of a doubt that he'll use the next ten in an equally good and clever way.

Here's to you Joel, and to all that you still have to tell us!

Joel's photo lifted from here. I hope he won't mind, and I also believe it's OK even going by the letter of the law (you know: the comment and review bit).

Monday, 15 March 2010

Sweet Little Sixteen

Last week a debate was raging in the UK about the minimum age for children to be prosecuted in an adult court. Currently it is set at ten. Yes, that's 10. It implies, and its supporters maintain that children aged 10 are fully capable of understanding their actions and their consequences.

This was all kicked off by the recall to prison of a man, then boy aged 10, who was convicted of kidnap and brutal murder of a two year old James Bulger. A terrible crime indeed, with its perpetrators (there were two, both aged ten) duly prosecuted, sentenced, and imprisoned - all in an adult court.

I can't, and won't, go into the discussion on whether the fears raised by this murder, and subsequent tightening of penal policies, were justified or not. Someone else did it much more capably than I ever could. You'd be well advised to read that particular article, here.

What I do want to say, for whatever it's worth, is that holding children of ten (or even 7, or 8, as in Scotland) fully criminally responsible, in the same way proper adults are, and thus tried in the same courts, applying exactly the same rules, is patently wrong on many, many levels.

While I can fully understand James Bulger's family's grief - I wouldn't really blame them if they wished the killers to be hung, drawn, and quartered, either - I don't think even they'd be very happy if their other young ones were tried in a full, adult criminal court for any offences. And surely, when they think back to the time they themselves were ten, they could put their hand on heart and say they were equally mature as they are today, and hence should have been treated as such by the criminal system.

Or, turning the argument on its head somewhat: if children aged ten are equally as mature and responsible as adults, at least enough to be prosecuted and tried in adult courts in the same manner as their parents would be, then surely they are adult and mature enough to be given the right to vote? Or drive a car? Or run their own finances? Hold a full time job? Be drafted into army? Surely any of the things that are currently reserved for adults should also become available to anyone who has reached the age of criminal responsibility.

Somehow I'm sure that Swiss do not allow their seven year olds to vote, or Scots their eight year olds to walk into a bank and open an account.

I know there are calls in this country for voting age to be lowered to sixteen. Maybe it should really be, even if it seems (very) unlikely. But almost in the same breath it is rejected that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to a mere twelve. Twelve!

Yes, for some values of "right" and "wrong" children aged twelve may be able to distinguish between the two. But is it enough to be held fully criminally responsible? Is it not required that a person is also (reasonably) able to fully understand the consequences and implications of their actions? Moreover, is it not necessary to have at least a vague understanding of the laws of the land? Are children aged 7, 8, 10, or even 12, really capable of the latter two? Really, really?

I will bet you my bottom dollar that almost none are. And because of that, and unless we as a society have somehow, quietly, moved from criminal justice as part deterrent, part punishment, and part chance to correct a person, to criminal justice as part punishment, part deterrent, (a large) part revenge, then we should really think twice before throwing anyone, let alone children, behind bars, and throwing away the key.

And if anyone is in need of careful healing it is the youngest who for whatever reason find their way on the other side of the law. I am sure that even James Bulger's family will agree that a great part of what made their boy's killers was what was around them, and most probably their own parents.

So, while kids like James Bulger's killers most certainly need both punishment and help (but much more of the latter), it may be a better idea to extend criminal responsibility for children's actions to their parents. They are, after all, their legal guardians until quite and advanced age. Surely, they can be held responsible for their children becoming murderers, too?

How about then we raise the age of criminal responsibility to a more sensible one, while at the same time raising the level of responsibility parents have for their children's behaviour?

My own gut feeling would be that 14 is probably the lowest sensible age. But, in case we do agree that 16 is good for voting, how about it then also becoming the age of criminal responsibility? And the age of consent? And also the age of financial responsibility? Then the phrase "coming of age" would gain a new weight, even if "sweet little sixteen" would somehow pale...