Five good books

Looking for a book to read? Here are five with the Muttrox seal of approval.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr — Kind of a Sherlock Holmes Jack the Ripper kind of feel. Great book. Everyone in my family has read it and liked it, and it was a huge bestseller. “The Alienist” is a professor of abnormal psychology, but it is set before such a science really exists. So
he is pioneering it while being scorned by most of society (even though he’s completely right), and gets wrapped in a mystery about a mysterious figure. Told from the point of
view of one his admirers (a la the Sherlock Holmes). You can’t go wrong with this one. It even has Theodore Roosevelt! Bully!

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver — Well known book, mostly relegated to hickbook status. Roughly. it’s about a very very zealous missionary who picks up his southern belle wife and 4 daughters to move them to the Congo. They have no idea what they’re getting into at any level. Won many prizes, and probably deserved them all. Advantage for men in relationships: You will get bonus points from your better half for reading this.

Cryptmonicon by Neal Stephenson – It’s categorized as SF, but it’s not. Not sure what it is really except terrific. It’s almost 1000 pages, and they just keep getting better. It’s awesome. I took it home over winter break in 2000, stayed up late every night reading it, and continually blew off my in-laws so I could read another few chapters. Just could not put it down. Yes it’s long, but it’s worth it. (OK, you want some plot? There are two parralel stories. One is in current day about a hacker type who is trying to start a business forming a data haven. The other is set in WWII, and is mostly about a marine and a code-breaker whose paths cross. And lots of stuff happens, and you begin to find out it really is just one story…)

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker — Interested in what makes you tick? This book explains so much about how humans reason, think, and feel it’s scary. The main thesis is that our mind (if there is such a thing) is rooted in the brain. The brain is a result of an evolution. A glorious kludged together heterogenous device. It blew my brain up every 5 pages or so with something that was so obviously true about humans and human life that I had never noticed before. Also very readable, and very funny (some good 3 Stooges references made their way in there.)

Steel Beach by John Varley — Warning: Science Fiction. I liked it a lot, and I think it’s very readable without being complete brain candy. One of my brothers read it and called me a jackass, so opinions are split. I think he’s a jackass, so who ya gonna believe?

These are listed more or less in order of accessibility. Everyone will appreciate the first two, the odds get longer after that.

Judith Miller: Keep her in the pokey

Media editorials are still lining up behind their own. Judith Miller went to jail (and Cooper almost did) to protect the confidentiality of her source in the Valerie Plame case, right? Nay, twas to protect the very fabric of journalism! Forsooth, for if a precedent be set, then verily the cessation of confidential information would shake the heavens, and the gods would laugh at the slow death of investigative journalism! (Apologies for that terrible Thor impression.)

But this makes no sense. The only way the government can compel a reporter to reveal their source is if (1) A crime has been comitted, and (2) there is no other way to get to that information. In other words, the only sources who would be burned by this precedent are criminals, who are committing crimes by leaking information. What’s so bad about that precedent being set?


I bought a pair of boxcutters yesterday. I had bought two before, and neither of them have worked. Fancy ones, with “blade replacement systems” and such. Hell, with it, I’m getting the same one my Dad had for his whole life. Simple, to the point. I am my father.


Just wondering

So, what has to actually happen before we can say this is Watergate II, or worse? Where’s the point at which it is acceptable in mainstream politics to point out how this administration operates? Do we actually have to catch Bush with the still beating heart of Al Franken being brought to his mouth before we’re allowed to say anything?

Watch the video. Read the transcript.
The press grows some hair, and finally confronts McClellan on the whole Rove/Plame connection. Lying through his teeth through the whole thing, and finally caught at it.

God, I can’t wait for The Daily Show tonight. It’s gonna be a great one.

Good Pizza

Good pizza is hard to find. Not gourmet cusine pizza – just plain ol’ good pizza. I was inspired by this paragraph from the Sports Guy

The well-done 14-inch cheese pizza at either the Larchmont Village Pizzeria (West Hollywood) or Pino’s Pizzeria (Brookline, Mass.).
Here’s what I want from my cheese pizza: I want the cheese to be brown and a little bubbly. I want a thin-crust that isn’t too doughy. I want just enough sauce that the roof of my mouth burns. And I don’t want to feel like I need a bypass after I eat it. Only two pizza places have ever accomplished this for me, and they’re 3,000 miles apart. Go figure. It’s harder to find a white punt returner than a good pizza place, isn’t it?

I have slightly different standards. Tomato sauce is divine. Cheese is great, but don’t overdo it. If you can’t take a bite without strings hanging out of your mouth, you’ve gone too far. If it’s dripping over the sides, you’ve gone too far. The cheese is a topping, not some amorphous semi-cooked blob of dairy putrescence.

Sports Guy mention of Pino’s, where I wiled away many happy lunches, got me salivating. Since I moved to Georgia, it’s hard to find good pizza. Here are the best pizza places I know:

  • Marios
  • Ninos
  • Papa Ginos (in the old days)
  • Unos/Duos/Ginos
  • Brother Brunos

None of those are in Georgia. Notice they all end in “o’s”? That has become my new Pizza Postulate.

Pizza Postulate: For top quality pizza, the vendor must have a name ending in "o".

In Georgia, there are two pretty good pizza places. Interestingly, both end in a vowel, but not the letter o.

  • Fellini’s
  • The Pizzeria

More examples are needed to flesh out this pizza paradigm! Submissions welcome!

Car Seats suck

Child car seats are a strange industry. Can you think of another product, that is designed to save lives, that is required by law, that 80-98% of people can’t install correctly (depending what source you believe)? The government requires me to buy one of these, requires me to leave my child in it all times, but has no requirements about making the product clear enough to use that it does any good. Seems a little insane, no? I like to think I am well above the average citizen when it comes to this sort of thing, but I really don’t know. Maybe I’m part of the huge majority on this, and I am setting up Muttrox Jr. for a quick exit from this world.

Some day there will be a massive class action suit about this. The legal situation is already crazy. When we took Muttrox Jr. home from the hospital for the first time, we were of course terrified that we had installed it wrong. We asked the nurses to look it over. They refused. They are not legally allowed to give advice or help. Presumably if they did that and there was an incident the hospital would be liable. Strangely though, they can just refuse to hand over the infant because the car seat is unsafe. So you can start pulling straps at random until the refusal is lifted. Bizzare. We had a similar experience when we rented a car, and the seat wasn’t like any model we had ever seen before. The folks at the counter didn’t know anything and weren’t allowed to tell us if they did. They also had no instruction manual, and were even missing the locking clip that all seats have. Stay the hell away from Dollar Rent-a-car!

Then there is the civil liberty aspect to this. I believe every state has laws prescribing car seat usage at a very young age, up to 2 years. Some have a lot more. In Georgia, you need to use various devices until they are six. (Take a look at the link. Looks like it was designed by someone who sends conspiracy spam in their spare time. These are my tax dollars at work?)

The issue here is the role of parents to make their own choices for themselves and their family, versus the common safety. It’s a give-and-take. Our society leans these days towards the common safety. Without going off on another rant, it’s thinks like this that make so many people identify themselves as libetarian, regardless of how they vote. Anyhow — the point is that since seat belts save enough lives, the safety issue overrides the parental role. With car seats, the logic is the same. But I don’t believe it. I never have. I’ve never believed that a child over a few years old derives all that much benefit from car seats. More than that, I just don’t like it. I don’t like talking to my son in the back seat. Many of my best memories from my own childhood are driving with my father and talking with him, in the front seat. DeborahTannen claims that men communicate about big issues best in setting like a car, where they are together but not directly facing each other, and based on my own experience I believe it. It saddens me to know how old my boy will be before I can put him up front.

And where’s the evidence? Steven Leavitt, of Freakonomics fame, has an article in the NY Times today, and a follow-up blog entry. It fits right into my pet peeve. Clearly, his conclusions are not warranted from his statistical evidence, but it also points to the need for more research. If car seats are empirically shown not to significantly help older children, where is the justification for these laws?

Judith Miller: Throw her in the pokey

Let’s agree on a few things up front.

  • Judith Miller is not a journalist, she’s a “player”. Her history of drumming up support for the Iraq War is well-documented, and went well beyond the lines of journalism. She regularly distorted/invented facts to fit her agenda, and failed to show objectivity.
  • Free Press is good.
  • Exactly what defines a journalist is less clear every day.
  • The behavior of Robert Novak is mysterious and bizzare. But tangential.

OK, with that out of the way, let’s chat about the issue at hand:
Question: Are there limits on source protection for journalists? Answer: Of course. Duh.
Question: Did Judith Miller cross that line? Answer: Of course. Duh.

A crime was committed. An important crime. A CIA agent’s life was endangered. Note that it was the CIA that started the ball rolling, they obviously feel it’s important enough to justify legal action. Although the details are unknown, and Novak’s role is unknown (see above), it’s clear the government met the legal hurdles — that is, they tried by all other means to see what happened. The only way for them to “solve the crime” was to go to the journalists. Which they did. So what exactly is the problem? She and any others, journalists or not, should be compelled to reveal what they know. End of story.

Here’s a good take on it:

In fact, thinking again about Watergate and Deep Throat is a good way to understand why Judy Miller should not be protected today. Because in Watergate, a reporter acting like Miller would not be meeting the FBI’s Mark Felt in an underground parking garage. She would be obsessively on the phone with H.R. Haldeman or John Dean, listening to malicious gossip about Carl Bernstein or their plans to make Judge Sirica look bad.

Many have brought up the slippery-slope argument. If Miller is forced to testify, the theory goes, who’s to say who’s next? If sources don’t have a legal guarantee of anonymity, they will be unwilling to provide information, to the detriment of all. This sounds good, but makes no sense. We are only speaking of sources that have committed crimes, crimes serious enough to meet the legal standard. Let’s turn the slippery slope argument the other way. If Miller is not forced to testify, anyone is free to commit any crime, as long as they are only known to do so by a recalcitrant journalist. Suppose Colin Powell went mad and killed a family of four, and later confessed to Miller. Shouldn’t Miller be compelled to testify? If she refused, wouldn’t it proper to hold her in contempt, both legally and morally?

Book review: Freakonomics

Steven Leavitt’s Freakonomics is a popular coffee table book these days, in fact my book club just covered it. Here’s some of my thoughts on it, not in any particular order or coherence.

The original article in the NYT magazine piece was the perfect length for this book. This explored each idea in more depth, but in the end, you were still left saying, “prove it”.

It takes giant brass ones for a writer to start each chapter with a quote from a magazine article explaining how amazing the subject/author of the book is, when the author wrote the magazine article in the first place. Steven Dubner, I’m looking at you.

One of the strangest things about Freakonomics is that there is virtually no economics in the book.

• The teachers cheating had zero to do with economics. It was straight statistics. I could have figured that all out, and probably for half the fee!
• The parenting stuff was pure statistics, and not original.
• The abortion thing also had zero economics in it
• The gang structure had some economics in it. But note that Leavitt didn’t do it. Some grad student risked his life to do it. And that still wouldn’t have mattered if the gang captain hadn’t been an ex-biz student. Sheesh, hand me a notebook with all the figures in it and I’ll deduce the financial structure also, what’s so great about that?
• The names of black and white people similarly had no economics in it.
• The sumo wrestling analysis was straight statistics.
..and so on. When there was a chapter that was about economics (like the KKK and the power of information), it was a relief.

So, I don’t know what Leavitt is, but it isn’t an economist, rogue or not. What he is a clear thinker who has a couple great skills. (1) He is very good at posing the problem or area of interest in a different way than other thinkers have done. (Or even recognizing that there is a problem/issue where no one had realized it) (2) Because of this, he finds data sources that no one had ever thought to use against. (3) He has enough analytic tools (stats and correlations and models and such) to be able to answer the question with the data. All of that is no mean feat, and the first is the real impressive thing.

I liked the chapter about names. Even though Justin was pegged as a particularly low class name, I still liked it! It’s a perfect illustration of his skills in #1 and #2, no one had ever thought about this issue and been able to find data you could do anything with. I frame his conclusions (again) in terms of Pinker’s theories. Pinker has a general theory about fashion and markers of status that is extraordinarily similar. Again, the high-status comes up with something new. The new thing has no value on its own; it is merely indicator of status. Fancy names, pipes, epaulets, crowns, purple clothes, etc. Eventually the next class down realizes they can gain a competitive advantage on their peers by pretending to be high status, so they adopt these indicators. And so on to the lower class. Eventually the high-status people need to find something new to mark themselves, because by now everyone has the original status symbol. So they move on the next “new thing”. You see this most extremely in fashion. Those weirdoes in Paris come up with some freaky new fashion. It makes no sense at all, but it is a marker for who is high class, and it gradually moves through society until it’s ubiquitous enough that the fashion mavens need to invent yet a new look. This theory aligns perfectly with Leavitt’s name research.

He claims the book is all about incentives. But incentives aren’t particularly economic. Certainly there are economic incentives. But there are just as certainly non-economic incentives, and non-economic ways that people react to economic incentives. In psychology, the same things are called positive and negative reinforcement.

Some day I’ll get around to writing where I see Economics as a field. The long and short of is that classical economics starts with a bunch of assumptions. Every single one of these assumptions is false, but they are good assumptions for getting economics off the ground. What we’ve seen in the last 30 years is economics taking a more realistic look at the world, relaxing these assumptions and comparing the results with real world phenomona. It is making economics more robust and empirical, but it is also making it less of it’s own science, as it blends in with statistics, game theory, politics, law, etc…

P.S. My father taught a course on Freakonomics. After four classes the whole class was bored with it, he had to dig out some more material. It’s that kind of book. Great insights, but you don’t know what to do with them.