Friday, January 16, 2004


I’ve coined a word for those lazy-writer-formula-thingies. Wonder if it’ll catch on?


The Three-Way Terrorism Trade-Off

This pre-9/11 article from the Journal of Law & Economics has disturbing implications for the fight against terrorism. The article demonstrates an unavoidable trade-off among three different goals of the justice system: lowering the crime rate, minimizing the number of innocents convicted, and treating individuals equally before the law (e.g., using the same rules of evidence for all people). The trade-off between the first two goals is probably obvious. But this article takes the argument a step further, by pointing out that our attachment to procedural equality could entail punishing more innocent people.

To put it another way, suppose we hold the crime rate constant. Then applying the same procedural rules to all groups implies jailing more innocent people than if we treated groups differently. The only way to avoid that trade-off is to accept an increase in the crime rate. Here’s how the abstract puts it: “Specifically, we estimate that innocent black Americans would be roughly eight times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder than innocent white Americans if society placed no value on equality when it comes to convictions. However, we estimate that eliminating inequality entirely could cost up to 1,900 lives annually because of a rise in the murder rate.” (Note that the form of equality referred to here is procedural equality, not equality of conviction rates across groups.)

What’s the logic? Say you’re playing blackjack, and you’re a good card counter. You’re halfway through the shoe, and you know that a disproportionate number of 10-valued cards remain to be dealt. Then it makes sense for you to increase your bet. You would be foolish to make the same bet on every hand, ignoring the information garnered by card-counting (unless, of course, you’re worried about getting kicked out of the casino). Changing your bet based on the count won’t guarantee you better results on every shoe, but you will do better in expected value and over the long haul.

The article’s argument, in a nutshell, relies on the same point. If you know that members of different groups have different probabilities of having committed the crimes they’re accused of, then insisting on the same standards of evidence or burden of proof across groups is equivalent to betting the same amount on every hand, regardless of the card count. You’re throwing away valuable information. Now, there might be very good reasons for doing so – equality before the law is nothing to sneeze at – but there’s no avoiding the trade-off. Ignoring that information means either (a) accepting a higher crime rate (which means innocents getting hurt), (b) punishing more innocent people (again, innocents getting hurt), or (c) both.

Now apply this lesson to the war on terror. Instead of talking about conviction of crimes, we can talk about apprehension of potential terrorists by means of airport searches, detainment, and so on. If we insist on treating everyone equally regardless of ethnic background (i.e., no ethnic profiling), we either (a) accept a greater likelihood of successful terrorist acts, or (b) harass a larger number of people, or (c) both. If it’s indeed the case that Arabs are more likely than non-Arabs to be terrorists (as a proportion of their group’s population, not as a fraction of all terrorists), then the trade-off here is quite real. I’m not actually advocating that we abandon procedural equality and embrace ethnic profiling, but I think we should at least recognize the sacrifice.


Thursday, January 15, 2004

Oh, This Can't Be Good

According to MSN Entertainment News, Michael Jackson has moved out of Neverland and into a rented Beverly Hills mansion. Here’s the best part (emphasis mine):

The hillside property, which also includes indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a huge tennis court, home theater, and ballroom, overlooks a kiddie park in Coldwater Canyon (d'oh!) and is located just a few minutes from Jackson's parents, reports People.
You know what they say: location, location, location.


Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Phrases for Lazy Writers in Kit Form Are the New Clichés

Geoff Pullum of Language Log says we need a word to denote “phrases for lazy writers in kit form.” To be more specific, “the thing we need a name for is a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers.” As the paradigmatic example, Pullum offers the frequent use of the old saw about Eskimos having some really large number of words for snow (which turns out to be false) in sentences like, “If Eskimos have N words for snow, then Santa Cruzans must have even more for surf.”

I haven’t come up with a name yet, but I do have another example: “X is the new Y.” I suspect this turn of phrase first appeared in the fashion world, in statements like “Grey is the new black.” Now it’s being used for just about anything, fashion-oriented or not. I have to admit getting a chuckle when I heard that butt crack is the new cleavage. But a quick Google search for “is the new” reveals a writing formula out of control. Among other things, I learned that:

Slick is the new scruffy. (style)
Scar tissue is the new black. (style)
Old is the new young. (style)
Glam is the new metal. (music)
Rock’n’roll is the new hip hop. (music, duh)
Knitting is the new rock’n’roll. (pastimes)
Gambling is the new rock’n’roll. (pastimes)
Blood is the new black. (horror movies)
To text is the new sex. (um, sex)
Open is the new closed. (software source code)
Small is the new big. (companies as investment opportunities)
Hate is the new love. (literature, I think)
Dean is the new McCain… and the new Carter, and Goldwater, and McGovern, and Reagan… (public nuisances)
Orange is the new black. (terror alert system)
Black is the new pink. (astronomy, color of black holes)
Blacker is the new black. (non-reflective surfaces for telescopes)
Someone’s gotta make it stop!

UPDATE: Mark Liberman, also at Language Log, comments. After some further Googling, Liberman discovered that many others have also observed (and been annoyed by) the "X is the new Y" trend.

UPDATE (added 12/6/2005): Shortly after composing this post, I proposed a word for these formulaic clichés: "snowclones." With Pullum's blessing, my coinage has become the term of art. Check out the Wikipedia entry. Given the number of people who find this page while following snowclone links, I thought it wise to add an update that actually includes the word. If I can claim no other accomplishment when I die, at least I'll have one neologism to my name!


Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Libertarian Space-Hounds

Mark Kleiman writes:

Some time I'd like to hear one of the libertarian space-hounds explain to me slowly why space exploration should be funded by coercive taxation rather than private enterprise plus voluntary contributions. It's not that I don't know the answer to that question, but I don't see how that answer is consistent with hostility to government in general.
Until I read Mark’s post, I was unaware of any “libertarian space-hounds” who supported government involvement in space exploration. Every libertarian I've heard or read on the subject has advocated the defunding of NASA and privatization. See, for instance, this whole page o’ links from Cato. After a bit of Googling, I discovered that Glenn Reynolds apparently supports government subsidization of space (by means of tax credits unavailable to other enterprises, among other things). But as famous as Reynolds has become, he’s certainly not the designated source for all libertarian opinion.

I suspect a survey of libertarians would reveal them to be almost uniformly opposed to government-funded space programs. Yet one libertarian’s advocacy of government involvement is enough to generate talk of “libertarian space-hounds.” Calling libertarians down for hypocrisy is all good fun, but let’s be serious: libertarians exhibit greater consistency than virtually any other political group. Indeed, I would argue that’s exactly why critics love to dig up examples of libertarian hypocrisy -- because libertarians actually state broad principles that could be contradicted by positions on specific policy issues. Other groups immunize themselves from charges of hypocrisy by refusing to adopt any overarching principles in the first place, except for vague generalities.

UPDATE: Mark has posted an update to his original post responding to my point. He is probably correct that the overlap between sci-fi fans and Ayn Rand fans is pretty large. For that matter, I’m a sci-fi fan myself (though my passion for Rand faded many years ago). The question, of course, is whether they let their fascination with space cloud their political judgment. On that question, I can only surmise, since I don’t have access to a survey.

I’m a bit confused by Mark’s comment, “All I want to know is how the libertarians are going to vote this year. If it's for Bush, then I will doubt Glen's assertion about ideological consistency.” There is certainly a boatload of good reasons for libertarians not to vote for Bush, and I certainly don’t plan to. But looking at whom one votes for in political elections, wherein every viable candidate will assuredly hold a variety of non-libertarian positions, seems an odd way to judge ideological consistency. At best, it tells you something about the relative weight the voter attaches to different libertarian positions when he is forced by circumstance to choose among them.


Better Ways to Bust the Budget

In response the president’s plan to build a moon base (a boondoggle if I ever heard one), Alex Tabarrok chides the president for his lack of originality and poses the following challenge to his readers:

What's your big-think idea to unify, motivate and inspire the nation? A moon-base will cost on the order of 200 billion so let's economize and say that the idea should cost 100 billion or less - a better idea and 100 billion to spare! Ideally, the idea should be mostly free of politics and have a strong possibility of success given that the money is spent. Email me and I will post the best ideas with full credit.
Of course, I'm not at all excited about the government spending $100 billion on something to unify and inspire us. But if the borrowed money's just burning a hole in the Treasury's hole-ridden and mostly empty pockets, I would suggest the following: Clone a human being, without serious physiological defects, by the year 2015. I suspect this research program would generate substantial positive spillover effects, mostly in the fields of medical technology and life extension. We might, for instance, learn how to grow organs that are already genetic matches for the recipients.

Of course, this will never happen, because our government is currently more interested in throwing hurdles in the way of medical science (by means of moratoriums, regulations, and outright bans on cloning and stem-cell research) than helping to advance it. My proposal assuredly fails Alex’s “mostly free of politics” requirement.


Monday, January 12, 2004

The Anal Movie Critic, Guest Edition

I’ve often used this space to critique films from a politico-economic perspective. But here’s my brother Neal’s take on “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” from a linguistic perspective [note 1: the adolescent-girl speech pattern is deliberate] [note 2: warning, spoiler alert]:

Like, you know what would've been cool? When Eowyn is trying to get a can of whup-ass open on the master Ringwraith? And he says, "You fool! No man can kill me!", and then Merry sticks him in the calf with his sword? And he drops Eowyn, and she pulls off her helmet and her long golden tresses fall down upon her shoulders? And she says, "I'm no man!" and shoves her sword right into his helmet?

Like, he should have said, "Foolish girl, to think you can overcome me with your silly word games! Don't you know that when I said 'man' I didn't mean 'male'; I meant 'human'! Now you die!"

Yep. If they'd been speaking a language like Latin (with 'vir' vs. 'homo') or ancient Greek (with 'aner' vs. 'anthropos'), they wouldn't have had this confusion.
Of course, word games have a long pedigree in literature, as my cousin Todd recognizes in his reply to Neal:
Yeah, and if Macbeth had said, "Macduff, you dumbshit, Caesarians don't count!"
(Actually, I think he means Caesarians do count [as “of woman born”], but you get the idea.)

Another, more recent example comes from the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A prophecy says that Slayer will face the Master (a very powerful vampire) and die at his hands. Well, it turns out the writers of these prophecies had a different definition of death -- one that doesn’t account for modern resuscitation techniques. Buffy faces the Master, and he chokes her to death. Minutes later, a friend revives her with CPR, and she comes back to kick the Master’s ass. I like this story better than the others (“no man” and “of woman born”) because the linguistic ambiguity results from a historical change in what it actually means to be dead (at one time, what happened to Buffy would indeed have been considered death), as opposed to a linguistic ambiguity that would have been apparent even at the time the prophecy was made.