Archive for January, 2012

I am generally of the opinion that big money will not matter that much in determining the winners in American presidential politics. Because each party wins about half the time, we would expect rational people (and corporations, although I guess they are now people too) to support both parties; higher spending overall will not necessarily mean higher spending by one party relative to the other. Plus, because presidential politics rely on so many macro issues, and the candidates become very well known by the time the election comes around, the benefits of the extra marginal dollar become quite small.

And yet, I can’t ignore Mitt Romney’s ad blitz in Florida and its effectiveness. After reading the piece in the NYTimes this weekend following Romney’s campaign, you would think that the reason Romney is doing better in Florida is because his campaign told him to “unleash” his aggressive side and start attacking Gingrich. But actually, it just means he outspent Gingrich 5:1. We can look at isolated examples where the bigger money candidate lost (Boxer in CA, Kerry in 2004). But the asymmetry of the Florida election suggests that the age of superspending is just beginning and it will have consequences. It also suggests that because the Establishment can’t rally around a candidate in the way they used to (for fear of incurring Tea Party wrath), their circling of the wagons will just involve tens of millions of dollars.

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The full list is out. What do you all think about it?

What I like:

-Love for Moneyball. Granted, I might be biased due to my love of baseball, but I think it’s a great film, and I like that it got nominated for Best Picture, Brad Pitt for Best Actor, and Jonah Hill for Best Supporting Actor.

-Love for Bridesmaids. One of the year’s best comedies got noms for screenplay and for supporting actress. Only problem is it could have gotten a nod for Best Picture. It certainly deserved it more than The Hangover did.

What I don’t like:

-Movies with bad reviews getting nominated for Best Picture. Previously, it has happened to The Blind Side and to The Reader. This year it happened to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It has a 46 on Metacritic. Seems like a bad choice.

-Not enough love for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Rooney Mara got a well deserved Best Actress nomination, but I think Fincher could have gotten a Best Director nod, and the film certainly should have been one of nine to be nominated.

What surprised or intrigued me:

-Best Screenplay for A Separation. It already seems guaranteed to win for Best Foreign Film, but it might be truly fantastic to get other noms.

-How does Tintin win the Golden Globe for Best Animated film but not even get nominated for the Oscar?

-The Academy was evidently unable to resist movies that celebrated movies. Hugo and The Artist lead the field. I am excited to see both.

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I was thinking about buying a probe thermometer because I would like to better assess the doneness of my meat, so I went to Amazon to take a look. I typed in “probe thermometer” and Amazon returned a set of thermometers. They vary in price and functionality, but they all have one thing in common: 3.5 stars.

The other day, I decided I wanted to try a new Indian restaurant in my area other than the few I always frequent. Lo and behold, they all have 3.5 stars on Yelp.

It seems obvious that, given enough reviewers, customer reviews should tend to mellow out around, well, 3.5 stars. But there are notable exceptions (consider, for example, IMDB).

What is it about product/service reviews in particular that seems to promote the averaging out around 3.5 stars? Let’s take one heavily reviewed Amazon product — an excellent book that I recently read called The Art of Fielding (in my opinion, the best book ever written about baseball):

5 star: (100)
4 star: (34)
3 star: (35)
2 star: (29)
1 star: (50)

It’s an odd distribution to say the least, but it highlights perhaps the problem of people who write online reviews. They are overwhelmingly very high — I enjoyed this book so much that it warranted a review — or overwhelmingly low — this book was so bad that I decided to review it. Compare this with the reviews for the digital probe thermometers and the effect is similar:

5 star: (41)
4 star: (23)
3 star: (10)
2 star: (12)
1 star: (28)

Again, lots of 5 star reviews and lots of 1 star reviews. Again, though, this points to the kind of person willing to write a review for the product. In buying the product you already analyzed it and expected it to be worth your money. If you were extremely impressed or disappointed, you reviewed it. If you were meh, why bother reviewing?

Thus, all popular products inevitably end up in the meh bin.

Weirdly, this does not apply to non-book pop culture. For example, Adele’s 21 sports a shocking 4.5-star rating, but again, this has to do with the ability to sample the wares before you buy the product (same with movies). Before listening to an album, you have heard the songs enough to know whether you like it enough to buy it.

What’s unnerving about this tyranny of the 3.5-star review is that it then makes the customer reviews essentially worthless. The whole promise of crowd-sourced reviews was that they would remove the monopoly of product-reviewers and open everything up to the masses. Instead, the incentives for responses make it such that the reviews provide little to no value to the consumer.

Whether it’s recipes or Zadie Smith novels, the “pretty good” averaging out of reviews has hurt their ability to tell us much about the product we’re buying. In the end, we either end up trusting the qualitative reviews over the quantitative (a bad proposition, if you ask me) or we buy the product and hope for a generous return policy.

Just as with a lot of the new information-heavy world does not make our decisions any easier, these reviews are just more information without any understanding of what they really mean.

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I love everything about this clip. From the immediacy and certainty (and loudness) of the answer, to the agreement from the other contestent, to the extremely generous awarding of the answer.

I had to leave my lab for a good several minutes to prevent myself from exploding/crying/dying of laughter in front of my labmates.

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The key changes when the guys start singing are really striking. This genre of video fascinates me, as it really highlights the combination of group participation and response to music, mass democracy, voyeurism, and exhibitionism that the Internet inhabits. That is to say, this is a piece of art that is entirely new and could not have ever existed previous to this moment in history.

People can complain about whether or not mashup is worthwhile, but it is at least novel.

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One of the best bets I ever lost

At the beginning of August, I made a bet with a labmate of mine. I said that Rick Perry would win the Republican presidential nomination. The terms were that if I won, my labmate owed me lunch, and if anyone other than Rick Perry won, I would owe him lunch. This is called a “field bet,” and it was a mistake. I should have made him pick someone in particular, as opposed to anyone other than Perry. Alternatively, I could have weighed the stakes differently, so that I owed him a lunch if I lost, but he would owe me, say, 3 lunches if I won.

But I didn’t do either of those, and the reason is that I was feeling very confident. Rick Perry had the swagger and alpha male patriarchal gravitas that Republican voters craved, I thought. He’d sign off on executing innocent people in Texas and not give a fuck. He’d lead with his gut, and not listen to a bunch of egghead “experts.” He was a tough talkin’ Texan, unafraid to display his strong religious faith and wage a cultural war against gays, or the nonreligious, or anyone else that seemed acceptable to pick on:

And at first, it seemed like I made a smart bet. Below is the polling for the GOP nomination, and Perry is in blue:

Almost immediately after I made the bet, he sailed right past Romney! Things looked good. But then a funny thing happened. I hadn’t counted on a few key facts. Namely, Rick Perry was too stupid to talk. I had never listened to him before, but I assumed that because he had won all 10 of his previous electoral contests, he presumably had this basic skill more or less covered. I was wrong. In debate after debate, he showed this very clearly:

And as you all know by now, his support tanked and it never came back. The more conservative base of the GOP that didn’t want Romney moved on to other possibilities: Cain, then Gingrich, then Santorum. As Stendhal explained, this more or less guaranteed that Romney would remain the frontrunner.

Today, the news broke that Rick Perry will drop out of the race and throw his support to Gingrich. Who knows, Gingrich may even win South Carolina and build off that win to challenge Romney. But either way, the bet is over and I bought my labmate lunch. But let me just say, I’ve never been so happy to have lost a bet. Of all the GOP nominees, Perry is the one I disliked the most. His cruelty, ignorance, callousness, and stupidity were an awful and dangerous mixture. In the end, I made the best kind of bet: the kind you win either way. I would gladly buy a lunch if it meant that this awful man would never be president.

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I know, Rick Perry at this point only deserves to be ignored. He has no chance of winning in South Carolina, etc.

But this quote from Perry about the Marines who allegedly urinated on Taliban corpses struck me:

When you’re 18 or 19, you do dumb things. These kids made a mistake, there’s not any doubt about it,” the Republican presidential hopeful said. He went on to note that other famous military figures acted the same way in a war environment: “[Winston] Churchill did the same thing.”

Although the Marines should be “appropriately punished” Perry criticized “the idea that this administration would go after these young people for a criminal act.”

You know what’s funny? I almost agree with Perry. Kids do dumb things and make terrible mistakes; punishments for them should be different than those for adults.

I wonder what Rick Perry would say about the case of Napoleon Beazley. When he was 17, Beazley committed a brutal murder of a 63-year-old John Luttig during a carjacking. As a result, the state of Texas in turn murdered Beazley by lethal injection for a crime he committed when he was a “kid.” (He was also convicted by an all-white jury; he was black.) Kids make mistakes and Napoleon Beazley made a terrible one. His environment was rife with violence, and he committed a horrific act of violence. His environment and his age do not excuse his act, certainly, but does his act of murder deserve a murder in kind? Surely, there must be some leniency offered to “kids.”

Except, of course, I already know what Rick Perry says about this case. 18 state legislators, as well as the original trial judge, wrote to Perry to ask him to commute Beazley’s sentence. His response?

“To delay his punishment is to delay justice.”

No leniency. No “just kids.” No “dumb mistake.”

Now, one could argue that murder is different than corpse desecration, but I doubt Perry’s response would be any different for alleged murders of civilians committed by American troops at war. When they are committing a murder that Perry likes, they are “just kids.” When they are committing a murder that he doesn’t, they deserve “ultimate justice.”

Were it not for a Supreme Court decision banning executions for crimes committed while a juvenile, I’m sure Perry would gleefully pull the switch himself.

Rick Perry, good Christian, enjoys murdering his own citizens in the name of justice. He is proud of it, whether they were kids or not.

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