Books: The Armchair Economist

I love riddles. I don’t mean the Laffy Taffy “What kind of shoes do ghosts wear?” kind (well, actually I love those too), but the non-funny kind that crop up in daily life and require a heapin’ helping of lateral thinking to unravel. This is why, a while back, I got obsessed with Traffic Flow Theory: the study of how people behave in traffic.

As interesting to me as the riddles themselves is the fact that most of us (myself included) don’t even recognize them as riddles until someone calls our attention to them. Why, for instance, do we have traffic jams? It seems like a stupid question — traffic jams results from too many cars on the road, duh — but Traffic Flow Theory illustrates that jams are not inevitable, but occur because people behave in very specific (and often counterproductive) ways. The trick to these real world riddles isn’t so much figuring out the answer as realizing there is a question worthy of investigation.

Another fascinating (to me) “no-brainer” is: “Why do people stand on escalators but walk on stairs?” As with the traffic jams conundrum, it’s not even obvious that there is any behavior worthy of research here — if people stood on stairs they would never get to the top, duh — but that didn’t stop a bunch of economists at the University of Rochester from looking into this very puzzle. Some of the hypothesis those economists cooked up were summarized here by Steven E. Landsburg.

This is just one of many issues that Landsburg has explored in a regular Slate column entitled Everyday Economics. My interested piqued by the escalator question, I went back and read his entire series of articles, which tackle pressing societal issues ranging from how to win Ebay auctions to why tall people make more money to, my favorite, why people peel bananas with the stem-end up. (Monkeys peel ’em the other way, you know.) Eventually, though, I ran out of articles, leaving me with no option but to read his book, The Armchair Economist.

Written before his tenure at Slate, The Armchair Economist serves as a perfect lead-in to his column. It comes complete with a primer on economics, gives you some idea of Landsburg’s worldview, and then tackles a few “Rational Riddles,” such as “Why do movie theaters charge more for popcorn?” (Oh, you think you know why theaters charge more for popcorn? Well, tough guy, what if I told you that the chapter in which this is discussed is entitled “Why Popcorn Costs More At The Movies And Why The Obvious Answer Is Wrong” …)

When not demonstrating that the obvious is incorrect, Landsburg also takes great joy in demonstrating that some plainly ridiculous ideas are, in fact, quite sound: the best way to make drivers safer is to take away their seat belts install sharp spikes on their steering wheels; a city that spends $10,000,000 to build a free aquarium may as well buy $10,000,000 of gold bullion and dump it in the ocean; and it is posible to build a factory that converts corn into automobiles.

For me, personally, The Armchair Economist was especially valuable, because many of the myths is sets out to explode are those that I (as a self-described progressive) hold dear: one chapter is entitled “Why Taxes Are Bad,” another is called “Why I Am Not An Environmentalist.” He even makes a remarkably convincing argument that bipartisanships in politics is something to be feared rather than welcomed. While I often read writers with beliefs counter to my own, I rarely come across an author who not only challenges my convictions but ponies up the logical arguments necessary to make me think “holy smokes, maybe he’s right!” That’s what made this the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year, and one that I recommend highly.

Read Moby Dick

David Sedaris says he read Moby Dick. The liar. Well, I assume he’s lying, because (a) he’s a humorist (i.e., professional liar) and (b) it’s well known that 71% of all Moby-Dick-reading claims are lies. But Sedaris provides a fairly believable account of how he managed to pull it off, so, I dunno — maybe he did read it. It’s possible, I guess.

In any case, even if he tried he probably got further into the book than I did. Earlier this year I, too, decided that, at long last, I would tackle Moby Dick. So I checked it out from the library, brought it home, and then assiduously ignored it for a few weeks while I read Nero Wolfe mysteries and graphic novels. Finally, one evening, I decided to bite the literary bullet. As I lay in bed before turning off the light, I picked up the well-worn volume, turned to Chapter One (“Loomings”), and prepared to fulfill a lifelong goal of mine.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me …

Wait, what? Driving off the spleen? Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me?

Unnerved, I pressed on.

… whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

I put the book back on my bedside table, turned to The Queen, and said “Hey, just FYI: I am not going to read Moby Dick. Like, never, in my entire life.”

The Queen gave me the briefest of glances, shrugged, and went back to reading her own book. This is why I married her.

I enjoy crossing things off my “To-Do In This Life” list, and I’ve been x-ing out a lot of them in the last couple years. Not accomplishing things and then crossing them off, oh no; just attempting (or mentally reevaluating) them and then announcing “Yeah, that’s not happening.” Like, I always wanted to run a marathon. And, point in fact, I’m sure I could do the Seattle Marathon in November if I wanted to. But I recently ran a half marathon and, oh brother, whatta freakin’ drag. By mile 8 I was totally bored. By mile 10 I was wishing I’d brought a magazine. The idea of running 13.1 miles twice — hell, if I wanted that kind of excitement I’d buckle down and read Moby Dick. Which I could also do. If I wanted to. Which I don’t.

Ten years ago, if you asked me if I had read Ulysses, I probably would have just scoffed “of course” or hedged with an “I’ve been too busy reading Milan Kundera” or whatever. Now, at the age of 32, I not only lack the initiative to read boring classics or run marathons, I don’t even feel the urge to lie about it any more. “Never read Ulysses and never will,” I’m likely to say today. “I got shitfaced in an Irish bar once, and I figure that’s close enough.”

Some people might say that lowering your standards is no way to meet your life goals. But those people are a bunch of 20-something Moby Dick liars, so, seriously: who cares what they think?

REO Speedwagon Arrested

Hanson described letters from Speedwagon as “increasingly incoherent.”

REO Speedwagon was arrested today for breaking, entering, and assault, after crashing through the door of an California beachhouse and crawling across the floor in pursuit of Cynthia Hanson, the owner of the home.

Hanson, who filed a restraining order against Speedwagon in April, says she has long anticipated such an incident. "What started out as friendship had grown stronger," she told reporters after the attack. "Recently it always seemed that they were following me -- they couldn't even wander without keeping me in sight."

Authorities believe that Speedwagon approached by water, bypassing the fence in front of the house by bringing a ship into shore. "We have found a boat," confirmed officer Janet Orwant, "although we still haven't located the oars. It's possible that they were thrown away forever."

Said Hanson of the event, "I'm just glad it's over. They were getting closer than I ever thought they might."

This marks the second time an 80s Band has been taken into custody this year, following the February arrest of The Police on charges of stalking.

Bus Pass

Chatting with a female friend.

Me: I dunno what it is, but I’ve seen a lot of attempted pick-ups on the bus recently.

L: Yeah?

Me: It’s like open season or something. Has anyone ever tried to pick you up on the bus?

L: Sure. It happens from time to time.

Me: Really? What do they say?

L: Oh, you know. They don’t use “lines” or anything, they just say something to start a conversation and go from there. Like, I had my headphones on at the bus stop a few weeks ago, and this guy came up and said “So, what are you listening to?” And I said the news, because I was listening to NPR. And he said “Oh, that’s too bad. You should be listening to …” and then he went on to list his favorite bands and ask me what my favorite bands were and stuff.

Me: And that works?

L: It probably works on some girls. But not on me, because I’m not in the market and I know what they’re up to. I mean, when someone comes out of nowhere and starts talking to me like that, I know they are either trying to pick me up or sell me God.

Me: [Laughs] Actually, that’s my backup plan when I try and pick-up girls. If it’s not going well I start pretending like I was only interested in converting them.

L: Crafty.

Me: I say “You’re listening to the news? Well, have you heard the Good News?”

L: Then, you know, they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting God.

Me: Which gives me the added comfort of knowing they are going to Hell.

L: It’s win-win.

Of Owls And Uranium

When I was a college student, my classmates couldn’t expel a lungful of air without articulating the phrase “Spotted Owl”.

Now, granted, I was an Environmental Science major at the aggressively liberal Evergreen State College, which is situated within chainsaw-earshot of the Olympic Peninsula, epicenter of the whole “Spotted Owl” brouhaha. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that we all had Strix occidentalis on the brain. But at the time, 1992, it seemed like the Spotted Owl was a topic of conversation throughout the US, with everyone insisting that it be either assiduously protected or roasted on a spit and served with caramelized onions.

The Spotted Owl occupied the center stage of the logging debate largely because environmentalists had thrust it there. Convinced that they could never sell the public on the idea that old-growth forests were complex ecosystems worthy of protection for a multitude of environmental, economic and aesthetic reasons, they instead opted to pin their hopes on a cute, fluffy, big-eyed bird. Funny how pseudocyphellaria — an endangered lichen so unloved it lacked even a common name — never wound up on a Sierra Club leaflet.

Eventually, Spotted Owls came back to bite environmentalists in the ass (figuratively speaking only, alas). Having reduced old-growth advocacy to the well-being of a single species, environmentalists were aghast when reports began to trickle in suggesting that the owls might be able to survive in second-growth stands as well. Many of my classmates denounced such findings as scurrilous propaganda invented by a cabal of timber-company fiction writers. Naturally, these were the same people who hailed every study favoring their cause as a paragon of Pure, Unadulterated Science.

As Spotted-Owls-in-second-growth findings became more prevalent and credible, environmentalists found themselves in a tricky position. After all, if studies had shown that good old pseudocyphellaria was able to live in second-growth, no one would have given a tinker’s damn because no one had built their house of cards on a bed of lichens. But with their poster child at risk, the environmental movement found itself having to laboriously retrace its steps. Suddenly the Spotted Owl was never the point in the first place, oh no. It was just a symbol, you see, for the larger issue of saving the old growth. But by then the public considered the Spotted Owl synonymous with anti-logging activists, and may well have concluded that if the owl didn’t need the old growth then maybe the US didn’t either.

All groups fall prey to Spotted Owl Syndrome from time to time, but lefties seem especially susceptible. The Trent Lott case was a classic example. Frustrated by the Republican stranglehold on political power, Democrats and left-leaning bloggers dogpiled Lott after he uttered an ethically ambiguous accolade at Strom Thurman’s birthday bash. Rather than use the occasion as a springboard to address the many very real cases of institutionalized racism inherent in our political system, Lott’s detractors opted instead to simply hound him from office. In the end, the Republicans switched to a more charismatic and less controversial Senate Majority Whip, while the Democrats belatedly tried to focus on the “larger issue.” But like the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson’s Lottery, Capitol Hill was content to return to the status quo once the stoning was complete. Republicans came out stronger, conservatives were lauded for their strong stance against racism, and Democrats won a completely symbolic and useless “victory”.

All of which brings me to the current “uranium from Africa” hullabaloo, a debacle that has all the earmarks of a liberal self-petard-hoisting: overzealous zeroing-in on a single aspect of a complex issue — not even an aspect, really, but, as in the aforementioned Lott-ery, a specific string of words — accompanied by a great show of feigned outrage. It has long been known that the Saddam / Niger / yellowcake allegations were all but groundless, but it’s only now that the story is getting traction that the Democrats are loudly declaring themselves shocked — shocked! — to learn that the statement was deceptive.

Oh, brother. I hope the folks at the Democratic National Committee HQ aren’t high-fiving each other over keeping this story in the headlines, because, truth be told, it’s not critics of the White House that are giving this thing legs but the Keystone-Cop-esqe bumbling of the White House itself. If Bush had just ponyed up with a “Whoops!” three weeks ago, that would have been the Second-Growth Study to this issue’s Spotted Owl. Instead we’ve been treated to the last 10 minutes of a Perry Mason episode, where, one by one, various persons in the courtroom leap to their feet and announce that “no, I’m the guilty one!”

It’s no longer even a political issue, really — the embarrassing ineptitude of the administration in addressing this imbroglio has passed into the realm of entertainment, like a montage of People Falling Down clips on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Sooner or later the White House is going to figure out that the optimal strategy for Uraniumgate damage control is abbreviated STFU, at which point the issue will evaporate. Unfortunately, many of the Democratic presidential candidates have already hitched their wagons to the yellowcake star, and may find themselves floundering when it winks out of existence.

Conservatives love to refer to liberals as elitists. I wish I could vehemently object to that characterization, but in many ways I think they are right. After all, while forever accusing Republicans of pandering to the ignorant, of dumbing everything down for mass consumption, of assuming that the public can’t handle anything more complex than a soundbite, lefties blithely do the exact same thing and, worse, do it poorly. They start by assuming a nation largely populated by uneducated rubes, and conclude that they have no choice but to go all reductio ad absurdum to make their case. That’s why they tie the entire old-growth logging debate to a single critter that may or may not depend on the forests in question; that’;s why they skewer the Republican’s Senate Majority Leader not because of his party’s frequent insensitivity to racial issues but because he coughed up a grammatical hairball that could be interpreted as a slur; and that’s why they are making a big to-do about a single sentence uttered by a President whose entire agenda, foreign and domestic, is a Progressive’s nightmare.

I understand that in an era of superficial media coverage, politicians must rely on symbols and shorthand to get their messages across, but Democrats seem especially prone to confusing their own metaphors with the broader issue they are supposed to represent. The uranium reference in the State of the Union address is interesting insofar as it’s symbolic of the larger campaign of deceit and distortion that was used to justify the Iraqi Invasion, and that is what the “opposition party” should be talking about. If the Democrats are truly the “Party Of The People” as they like to boast — and if they hope to recapture the White House in 2004 — they should respect the people enough to speak frankly about these matters, instead of getting investing huge amounts of time, resources and energy into oversimplifications that serve mainly to insult the public’s intelligence. Otherwise they might as well change their mascot to the Spotted Owl and call it a day.

* * * * *

Update: In the comments, the estimable Dean Esmay rebuts:

As a (mostly) former Democrat, I thought I’d point out two things:

  1. Democrats’ record on race issues really is no better than Republicans’, on sensitivity or anything else, and
  2. I haven’t seen any particular “campaign of lies and distortion” from this administration–because all of the supposed “lies” and “distortions” are pretty much exactly like the silly yellowcake nonsense: things which can be explained perfectly reasonably for people who don’t start with the axiomatic, a priori assumption that the administration always lies about everything.

I’m also surprised to see anyone see a foreign policy conducted on spreading democracy and human rights to be a progressives’ nightmare, honestly. It’s actually a terribly progressive agenda. That’s the funniest part: lots of people are starting to notice that there’s very little that’s really particularly “conservative” in the current administration’s agenda. Which probably explains in large part why self-described progressives are having such a hard time getting traction on any issue against this administration.

Here’s something to consider some time, just as a possibility:

  1. Maybe we really did kill and hurt fewer Iraqis with our invasion than leaving Saddam in place would have hurt and killed.
  2. Maybe we really are going to let them do with their own oil as they choose.
  3. Maybe we really are going about spreading democracy and human rights in the region.

Consider that as just a simple possibility. That all the negative spinning about it has been just that: negative spin.

If you can make yourself consider that, and consider it seriously, I’d say you’re a real liberal. If you can’t, if your instant reaction is to scoff, then perhaps you aren’t a liberal at all, but are merely a reactionary.

That’s what I’d say, anyway.

A League Of Extraordinarily Bad Reviews

The critics are raving about LXG!

“Unfathomable balderdash.” — Megan Lehmann, NEW YORK POST

“It’s not brazenly bad or heroically bad or stridently bad. It’s bad in all the old, dull ways of being bad: poor performances, absurd story, dreary special effects, witless dialogue and the excessive length of someone taking himself far too seriously.” — Stephen Hunter, WASHINGTON POST

“Outragously vapid.” — Michael Wilmington, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

“Extraordinary is the very last adjective that comes to mind.” — John Patterson, LA WEEKLY

“Quite awful.” — Richard Roeper, EBERT & ROEPER

Wild Wild West meets Avengers bad.” — Bill Muller, ARIZONA REPUBLIC

Team-Building Exercise

Conversation at a social gathering.

Hetrosexual Female Buddy: Hey, your [female] friend S. is really cute.

Me: Yep. She’s single, too, in case you ever decide to switch teams.

HFB: Really? Hmmmmm. [Ponders] Wait a minute: has she switched teams?

Me: Ah, no. So you’d also have to talk her into that.

HFB: Ummmmmm … yeah, that sounds like too much work. But thanks, though.


Hey everybody. Sorry I haven’t been posting very much recently, but The Queen and I are on vacation. I wish I could say we’re having a good time, but, I gotta tell you, this is the WORST summer trip I have ever taken!!

It sounded pretty good when I signed up for it: a completely free (!!) tour of France (or as they say in French, a Toor du Fronce). But the whole thing turned out to be a colossal disappointment. First, we flew all the way over there at our own expense, but I figured it was worth it since the rest of the tour was free, right? So we get there, and there’s, like, no cruise ship or tour bus or anything — they want us to ride bikes! The whole way! And they don’t even give you the bikes, you’re supposed to bring your own! WTF PEOPLE!!!!??!

I guess it’s pretty good exercise and all, but this tour still sucks because we, like, never stop to look at anything — we haven’t been to the Effiel Tower or the Ark of Triumph or nothing. I thought we’d be, you know, relaxing and eating crepes and stuff, but this whole trip is all just, like, go go go! And the only food they give us is powerbars and water. Totally lame.

The worst part is — aw shit, a whole bunch of my tour group just rode past this Internet cafe so I have to wrap this up. So anyway, stay away from the France Tour Company or whatever they’re called, because they are a bunch of SCAMMERS!!!! Needless to say, The Queen is pretty mad — she says I should have “done” some “research” or whatever on the trip ahead of time. But oh well — she’ll cheer up next month when I take her to Cuba for her birthday. I’ve been hearing a lot about this place called Guantanamo Bay and I think that sounds real pretty.

Research Day: Gout, Tridents, and High Concept

What is gout? While reading that Benjamin Franklin book, I was struck by how many people of that era (including Ben himself) were afflicted with gout. Unfortunately, the book never explained the ailment, and these days you almost never hear of someone suffering from it. All of which got me wondering if gout hasn’t been eradicated or renamed.

Well, according to this page, gout is still around, affecting “275 out of every 100,000 people.” Gout is a form of arthritis caused by the buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints of the body, and is thought to be exacerbated by overconsumption of alcohol, red meat and rich foods (all of which Franklin enjoyed in bulk). The big toe is the most commonly affected joint.

I’m not sure why gout is unheard of these days, since it’s incurable and seems to be as prevalent as ever. Perhaps it’s just lumped in with generic arthritis. Or maybe I’m not old enough to know anyone suffering from it (or to suffer from it myself): it tends to afflicted men after the age of 45 and post-menopausal women.

What were tridents used for?: Tridents are the weapon of choice amongst sea-faring fantasy races, Ocean Gods, mermen, and anthropomorphic tuna cans critters. But what were they used for?

Fish-poking appears to be the original use of the trident, offering fishermen thrice the chances of stabbing a trout that a spear affords. Tridents were also employed as horse prods. But as with anything with a pointy-end, Tridents were soon adopted by warriors. In fact, the peak of the trident’s career seems to have been as a gladiatorial weapon in arena combat. There was even a type of gladiator called a “retiarius” whose job it was to throw nets over opponents and then get all tridental on their ass. Good work if you can get it.

By the way, tridental is an actual word, meaning “having three points of prongs”. Neato.

What does “high concept” mean? Sometime, when encountering a new word or phrase, I immediately scurry off to to find out what it means; other times, when I’m feeling slackerly (i.e., 91% of the time), I just gloss over it. But after encountering the same unknown word on half-dozen occasions, I can usually pick up its meaning from context.

Not so with the phrase “high concept”. Despite seeing this in countless movie reviews and articles about television, I’m still not entirely sure what it means. Basing a story on a single unusual idea or something? And if there’s “high concept,” is there “low concept” as well?

According to this article about script writing (which I found by typing the phrase “what is high concept” into Google — it’s amazing how well that works sometimes), “High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image.” As examples, the article cites Liar, Liar (lawyer is magically forced to tell the truth for 24 hours), Splash (shy man falls in love with a mermaid), and some flick called Valley of the Gwangi (cowboys discover a lost valley filled with dinosaurs). In regards to the latter, the author writes “The poster shows cowboys on horseback herding and roping a T- Rex. When you see the poster, you almost do a double take. Cowboys? Dinosaurs? In the same movie? You want to know more. You want to see the film. That’s High Concept.”

Contrawise, the term “low concept” is used to refer to scripts that are character- or plot-driven. In this interview, screenwriter David H. Steinberg puts it this way:

Look at a movie like As Good As It Gets. Totally low concept. It’s a bunch of quirky characters who do some interesting stuff, but what really happens in that movie? I don’t know. TV is low concept too. Friends is the ultimate low concept show. It’s like six people sitting around on a couch.

Previous Research Day entries can be found here.