I don’t even know anymore

Like the kid in the crowd at Homerpalooza, my irony meter is totally blown. So forgive me if I can’t decide whether this is ironic, or deeply unironic:

Ban on shorting financial stocks sends betting soaring

Used to be that when you were short selling, you were basically, although not literally, betting that a stock’s price would fall. Now, when you bet that a stock’s price will fall, you’re basically, but not literally, short selling it. Because that would be illegal.

Maybe the abyss

Following on from my point about expected-value punditry1: if there’s no down side to predicting the end of the world via the collision of large hadrons (which2 end is delayed, though still obviously inevitable) then there’s no down side to predicting the complete and utter collapse of the world financial system.

In fact the prudent thing is probably to go the whole nine and predict the collapse of the human custom of exchanging money for objects and services. If the government moves quickly enough, perhaps with a massive infusion of furs and obsidian chips, then I am willing to allow the possibility that the barter system can at least be rescued. If barter goes, then of course you’re stuck with whatever you can find or make yourself. You can expect your favorite food bloggers to have a lot of suggestions about rat and pigeon meat in the coming (dark) months.

In semi-related news, it seems no less a statesman than Silvio Berlusconi has revealed that he is down with EVP. Hey, Silvio, what’s next for Alitalia?

Maybe the abyss.

That’s the spirit. It’s clever of him to recognize that that is probably the worst possible outcome, and to weight his prediction accordingly. Now even if Italy’s national airline is cast literally into the eternal fires of hell, nobody can reasonably be disappointed. And if it only just goes out of business, I, for one, will be pleasantly surprised3. Give it a try, it does wonders for a cynical worldview.

1) — a theory that upon further reflection I have to admit shares in the spirit, if not the wit, of this classic from the prognosticatory-studies literature.
2) — this tell-tale usage of the word “which” is by way of (not-so-oblique) tribute4 to David Foster Wallace, whose death last weekend (of a commonly fatal disease, make no mistake, but more on that later), I have to admit, made it pretty hard for me to want to bother with writing or even doing much of anything at all for a good few days there.
3) — this is a lie, I’ll be furious, especially if it happens on Thursday when I’m supposed to be flying on Alitalia.
4) — yes and the footnotes too, and more of my other mannerisms and tics than I care to name. If you care enough to get this deep into the nested footnotes then go and see the stuff that Jason Kottke has collected here, which if you follow all the links will lead you within a click or two to everything worthwhile the internet has ever had to say about the man. What a shame.

Feel the enervation

What a boring time to start blogging again. The presidential race, as usual, has created a sort of news vacuum that actually removes facts from the store of accumulated human knowledge. Chris Matthews is making sense, that’s how bad it’s gotten.

I wonder what it will feel like to reflect, some years down the line, on having been the 7,784th person to have published a blog post linking to a news article which reports on a campaign spokesperson’s statement about an unreleased TV ad which refers to a candidate’s having used a figure of speech that has a word in common with another phrase from an opposing candidate’s speech. Or even just to have read that blog post, and posted a concurring message in the comments box. That would be glory enough for most of us.

It’s a thrilling time to be alive.

Public service journalism

I’m going to go on record as having said that the world actually will end on Wednesday.

I’m typically no fan at all of hysterically uninformed weekend-science-desk pseudo-journalism but my undergraduate economics training (and a powerful intellectual tool that is) demands that I cast my lot with the doomsayers.

If you accept that:

1 — there is some chance, however infinitesimally small, that the Large Hadron Collider could cause us all to be swallowed by a black hole, or turned into a lump of strange space poo, or whatever, and

2 — that the world’s ending would be the worst possible outcome, unquantifiably bad, in fact literally infinitely bad

…then you’re bound by journalistic ethics and basic human responsibility to prepare your readers for the worst. Because the infinite badness of the apocalypse, even when multiplied by the vanishingly tiny probability that it will actually come to pass, leaves you with an expected outcome that is infinitely bad. In economic terms the expected value of the LHC project is negative infinity. I haven’t figured out what the units are but there’s really no time to worry about that, is there?

The big gaping downside of this prediction is that if I’m right, nobody will be here to congratulate me. So my choices are oblivion or ridicule. It’s the price you pay for being a visionary I suppose.


This guy (who really really doesn’t need my help, link-wise, but etiquette demands) makes a good point about a new poll with a small sample size, whose built-in inaccuracy is, as they say, a feature rather than a bug. Remember this when you’re poring over each morning’s numbers.

More important than that, though, is this: when you read a headline like McCain, Obama Tied you should snort with derisive laughter. Leave aside the question of why we’re following national opinion polls in the first place, when the race isn’t settled by a national vote. There’s still the rather shifty question of what relation these numbers have with the actual facts that they’re attempting to describe.

Look, it’s complicated, okay, and I’m sure a room full of real statistics wonks could argue about it all day (and school me quite thoroughly in the process). But at any moment the world is in a hopelessly complex state, with a hundred-some-million voters all in varying states of voting-for-X-ness and voting-for-Y-ness and don’t-know-ness and won’t-vote-anyway-ness. This is what we’re trying to gauge with these polls — a very very rough sketch that hopefully resembles the underlying reality in a meaningful way. (Is there an underlying reality, really? What form does this resemblance take? Are you a frequentist or a Bayesian? I don’t even know!)

The folksy, homespun analogy is this: what CBS is saying is that they stuck the thermometer in the turkey and the dial went to 42. Per cent, I suppose; it’s a strange thermometer. Leave that out of it for a second. Does that mean the turkey “is” 42 degrees, or whatever? What about the thigh? What about the breast?

Yeah, this is what “margin of error” is for. But still. If you stuck a meat thermometer in a turkey’s leg and it reads 160º, and then five minutes later George Gallup told you his fancy infrared thermometer reported a surface temperature of 205º, would this really help you draw any kind of inference about the state of the turkey?

If you’re addicted to the polling numbers, by all means, knock yourself out. At the very least it might be more informative to follow the trends in the tracking polls, rather than just the one-day numbers — at least they’re trying to repeatedly stick the same thermometer in the same spot each time. Do remember, of course, that the turkey is a complicated thing, and there’s more going on in there than a thermometer can hope to measure. And it doesn’t help that thanks to the electoral college, certain parts of the turkey matter a whole lot more than others. Or that some thermometers might not be quite up front about their racial views, for example.

Best yet, ignore the polls entirely, and take a look at some numbers that really matter.

Sporting journalism

If, like me, you’ve found yourself wondering (a month after the fact) what Bertie Wooster might have thought of the Wimbledon final, wonder no more.

Of course I was on the side of Federer, especially since his opponent had a peculiar habit of bending forward before every point and tugging from behind at the gusset of his shorts. It was very rum indeed.

Why we fight

Watching the Republican convention tonight (I know! I’ll stop!) I was suddenly struck by the idea that however transparently cynical and hypocritical the speakers may sound to me, there has to be someone out there who’s watching along and thinking something like “man what Fred Thompson is saying right now is SO FREAKING TRUE.”

Someone out there thinks the Democratic party, as watered-down and center-right as it is, is the party of socialists. Someone believes that Joe Biden, the senator from MBNA, is some kind of Seattle 1999 WTO-protesting Starbucks-window-smashing anti-globalization radical. Someone literally believes in supply-side economics. It’s a bizarre world.

I once had an idea for an experiment where I would spend a year watching Fox News and reading National Review and educating myself about the American conservative movement, and see if I ended up substantially more right-wing than when I started. I’m sort of afraid that when it’s over I wouldn’t have any thoughts at all, just a sort of mental test-pattern, with an image of a flag fluttering in slow motion accompanied by a smooth-jazz rendition of “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood.