Thursday, October 1, 2015

Everyday Peeple

Forget Parcheesi. Bayesian games are proper fun for the whole family. In a Bayesian game, one (or both) players doesn't know what type of person the other is. This is important because play will vary depending on the nature of your opponent. If you face the decision about whether or not to be the tough guy in a barroom confrontation, it's in your best interest to know whether or not the other dude can mop the floor with you. By reverse induction, it's therefore wise in such situations to signal to others that you're tough, or crazy or dangerous. This is true whether or not you're actually a badass. Acting tough in a barroom brawl game is therefore a pooling equilibrium. Contrast this with, say, the automobile market. A '31 Duesenberg Phaeton gets a motorist from Point A to Point B roughly as effectively as an '86 Yugo (provided you can find one still in working condition), yet for the price of one Doozy ($1.4M at auction), you can buy close to 1500 Zastava Korals (again, provided that many exist in the wild. A Dusenberg isn't 1500 times as efficient at transporting humans, so the price reflects something else about the owner. This is a separating equilibrium.

For most existing Bayesian-type games, we have pretty well-established heuristics about what to expect and how to play. We know when to be sincere (the marriage game) and when to be strategically dishonest (the dating game). But that's for well-established, properly-understood situations.

Meet Peeple, aka Yelp, but for humans. Yes, yes: the idea was stolen from either Dinosaur Comics or SMBC, depending on whether you ask Ryan or Zach (I do so hope they duke it out in the comments [they won't]). So far, most of the press has been pretty unkind. It's easy enough to imagine anonymous vandals ruining moderate-to-high profile people's reputations with relative ease and impunity. If this happens, the sensible response from folks with chronically bad ratings is to poison the well, so to speak. That is, if a separating equilibrium arises, where actually awful people tend to accumulate negative reviews, then those awful people will have an incentive to sock-puppet up and leave piles of negative reviews on the profiles of their rivals, thereby creating a pooling equilibrium where everyone looks awful. Sort of like Encyclopedia Dramatica, but with less fun and imagination.

Still, I think it'd be a nice experiment to see what sort of Bayesian game arises. Recall that some Bayesian games have no pure dominant equilibrium strategy. If I were a betting man, I'd say that there would be some chaos (pooling eq) among second-tier culture warriors, but most other folks would enjoy more-or-less accurate ratings. If I were a betting man.

Edit: the above assumes that the proposed venture isn't merely a silly hoax (pr ~.6)


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Late Night, with your host Sam

It's insomnia season at the Wilson household, and with it come the predictable eddies of madness. It occurred to me after reading a modest proposal by a fellow better known these days for Twitter altercations than for his short turn on a network game show that Internet celebrity provides very different institutional support than traditional celebrity.

The gist of the proposal: eliminate legislation that protects domain holders from liability for content posted by third parties. In other words, Blogger would be liable for what Mungo and I post here at EE. Think for a moment what the equilibrium would be in this game. Buzz in when you have the answer.

Now consider the organizations that support screen acting. Between the acting guilds, the agents, the publicists, the studios, and the ad hoc support networks that many top-tier celebrities have, famous actors have as much in common with regular people as Count Chocula has with Nosferatu. They enjoy, should they elect to avail themselves of it (ahem James Woods) a great deal of protection from the frothy purulence of hamfisted critics. Petty Internet celebrities, contrarily, enjoy no such organizational support. Constituents are too diffuse and too fleeting to effectively organize to provide reliable content filters. It is natural that otherwise gentle, sensitive people be spared harsh, direct criticism from semi-literates. In the absence of such a mechanism, it follows that these gentle, sensitive souls might neglect the difficult (?) task of following the implications of their proposals to their conclusions and instead petition the sovereign for redress.

Scurrilous blather is vexing. Perhaps the next generation of autoblocking technology will allow for a more comfortable browsing experience without resorting to scorched-earth changes to Internet jurisprudence. Perhaps.

For legal analysis:
Ken White comments here
Scott Greenfield here

Monday, September 28, 2015

Regulatory Penumbrella

There was a lunar eclipse last night. Where I am, the sky was overcast, so we couldn't see it. Even so, pedagogical opportunities like these arise seldom enough that I sat my 3 year old daughter down to explain to her the difference between an umbra and a penumbra. If you recall from your fifth grade astronomy class, the umbra is the region of complete occlusion. It's the full shadow, where the entire light source is obscured. The penumbra is the region of partial occlusion, where the foreign object is only partly covering the light source. Last night's eclipse created a penumbral region on the moon.

It occurred to me as I was attempting to explain this to a child whose attention was fixed on the necklace she was alternately creating and destroying—rather than what her completely, wholly, and utterly fascinating daddy was saying—is that it's pretty easy to see regulatory umbra: black-letter OSHA regulations can be parsed and obeyed, ATF fun police commands are available for perusal, even the PPACA is written down and given how much time has elapsed since it was passed, possibly even read by now. What we might more easily miss are the contours of the regulatory penumbra.

Every now and again, some joker will round up a hard copy of the Federal Register (the collection of regulations issued from DC) and pose in a photograph standing next to it. The puny human is dwarfed by the mighty stacks of dot-matrix printed paper, but even such stunts are a little misleading. If you're ever in my neck of the woods, hit me up and I'll take you to the Jefferson Reading Room at the LoC and we can take a gawk at the non-photo-op version together. It's been some time since I've done the pilgrimage, and I often get a belly chuckle out of opening to a (quasi-)random page to find some gem some long-forgotten rep used to roll a constituent's log oh so long ago. Still, the FedReg (as no one on Earth calls it) is small potatoes compared to the voluminous pile that constitutes the sundry state, county, and local ordinances that "govern" commerce throughout America. Regressively (and aggressively, and repressively), I might add.

What these skeins of interference represent to the bit of me steeped in public choice economics is orgiastic rent-seeking threaded in the weft of American society. Favored constituents plead the sovereign for slime-drenched special favors and with a twinkling of a gilt pen, hey-presto, incumbent hairdressers (to pick some low-hanging fruit) are granted a state-protected oligopoly. Of course, this quite naturally implies that should some enterprising kid seek to hang a shingle of her own, the list of available wildcat profession shrinks with each and every entreaty. And if the stories of cops shutting down kids' lemonade stands represent systemic trends rather than isolated incidents, then the lessons start early.

The regulatory umbra looks at the entrepreneurship trammeled by existing interference. It is large and ominous enough. The regulatory penumbra constitutes those efforts likely to attract the interference of a Bernie of overseers. I casually estimate that it blots out the whole of the sun.

Taking risks is already not particularly euvoluntary. Including a guillotine on hair trigger does not make it more so.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


When I was in middle school, a family member bought me a chemistry set for either a birthday or Christmas present. I recall that many of the recipes required an open flame, which I was not permitted to burn without supervision. One of the remaining available options was ink. With some cobalt and a couple of other ingredients, you could make your very own, quite serviceable writing ink. Quill not included. Once I'd tuned the mix of ingredients to find the optimal viscosity for an old fountain pen I'd reclaimed, I was well on my way to learning the rudiments of calligraphy. So I thought. It turned out my penmanship, notoriously rotten, was spectacularly unsuited to illumination. 

But one grand upshot of my foray into inks and quills was the re-discovery of the original purpose of script writing. For those of us weaned in the era of the Bic, it can be easy to forget or ignore just what a staggering mess well-ink can be. Ink is the slave of the weather, and if it's a hot, muggy day, your nice little thank-you letter to grandma can end up looking like a Ralph Steadman painting halfway into a mescaline tear. Cursive helps keep the ink blotches at bay. Try it at home if you doubt me.

So cursive as a writing technology overcomes a different technological shortcoming, one that was effectively patched by the ballpoint nib. The technological demand for cursive is near nil these days, occupying much the same niche as a tinsmith you might see at an ethnographic village. A buddy of mine on Twitter described it as the buggy whip of print. Quite right. 

Of course, there are a lot of buggy whips still out there. Square dancing, lepidoptery, cobbling, scrimshaw, soda jerking: plenty of old-timey customs survive for aesthetic reasons. And it is a poor society indeed that would haul up and huck out its heritage on barren efficiency grounds. 

Join me in the Wayback Machine to recall the barbaric days when well-intentioned educators would viciously force Native/Irish/Aboriginal students to speak only in English and dress only as their colonial overlords. Witness as southpaws were mercilessly punished should they attempt to write as the Good Lord intended. Marvel at the hubris of the grade school social engineer who demanded not mere assimilation, but rather strictly-enforced conformity. 

Cursive no longer serves its original purpose, but is that any reason to see it scrubbed from the earth? You don't have to teach it, but you sure as heck don't have to ban it either. Alyssa deserves better. We all do.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Emerald City Mayhem

You might remember this from a few years ago. At the time, I brushed it off a bit. Consumer fraud happens from time to time, and quite frankly if you're not getting soused in the parking lot pre-game and then smuggling in a flask, you're not appreciating the sport the way God intended.

This morning, I revisited my brush-off. The NFL and its subsidiaries have something of a reputation for being fiercely protective of the goodwill in their intellectual property. Cheerleaders' handbooks are notorious for their meticulous attention to minutiae, down to extremely basic intimate personal hygiene issues. Deflategate was HUGE news, penetrating even my stubborn indifference to pro sports. Hell, the Greatest Deliberative Body in the World™ has been known to directly intervene into the professional sports industries. It seems as if fraud or negligence of this sort should be all but impossible. Risking the alienation of customers over concessions is simply bad business. Recall that the absurdly high prices of refreshments at places like cinemas and sporting events are a way for firms to allow customers to voluntarily reveal whether they are marginal or inframarginal customers: everyone pays the basic tariff (adjusted for the quality of the seating) and then retains the option of paying extra for the convenience of gorging on stearic acid and simple carbohydrates for the duration. I suppose that the above video is merely an extension of the underlying economic logic. Inframarginal customers are less likely to bother checking whether or not their already wildly overpriced vaguely beerlike piss-swill sizes are sufficiently different to justify the surcharge. After all, if you were prudent with your finances, you wouldn't buy yak squeezins at... hang on, let me check... CenturyLink Field (when last I lived there, Seahawks Stadium was called Qwest Field (ugh)).

So, no individual patron of interest has much incentive to bother doing a beer size QA check. They're primarily there to watch the Hawks get embarrassed yet again. But repeat small probability events enough times, and the above video becomes a near certainty. You can't fool all the people all the time. By backwards induction, you shouldn't even try.

I'm a bit puzzled then. Is my model of the NFL misaligned? Can the Hawks' concession service really be that obtuse? Why is the NFL so incredibly uptight about propriety elsewhere but they let crap like this slide? What am I missing?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Psychology of Scarcity

On the Psychology of Scarcity: When Reminders of Resource Scarcity Promote Selfish (and Generous) Behavior 

Caroline Roux, Kelly Goldsmith & Andrea Bonezzi
Journal of Consumer Research, forthcoming
Abstract: Consumers often encounter reminders of resource scarcity. However, relatively little is known about the psychological processes that such reminders instantiate. In this article, we posit that reminders of resource scarcity activate a competitive orientation, which guides consumers’ decision making towards advancing their own welfare. Further, we reveal that this tendency can manifest in behaviors that appear selfish, but also in behaviors that appear generous, in conditions where generosity allows for personal gains. The current research thus offers a more nuanced understanding of why resource scarcity may promote behaviors that appear either selfish or generous in different contexts, and provides one way to reconcile seemingly conflicting prior findings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

I, Sandwich

Well, almost I, Sandwich. Pay attention to all the capital used, from the stoves, to the boat, to the farms, to the plastic jugs, piped gas, &c &c &c. But even with all that, making a humble sandwich from (almost) scratch should lend an appreciation for the BATNA to market exchange, a BATNA that folks in, eg, Venezuela are obliged to accept.