peteg's blog

Bunny Lake is Missing

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A Laurence Olivier segue from The Boys from Brazil. Preminger, too, in Hitchcock mode, but not very satisfyingly. The cinematography is great, and Olivier anchors the piece ably, but things fall apart when the plot starts grasping for a resolution. Keir Dullea is somewhat pro-forma, which is perhaps why he got the Dave Bowman gig in 2001.

Paul Mitchell: We. Are. Family.

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Kindle. I've been sort-of waiting for Mitchell to follow up his collection of short stories for years now. Once again, his technique is masterful, but this time around he is a lot less transgressive and nowhere as clever; the substance of his stories tends toward a normative account of generations of domestic and other violence, some mental illness, failed marriages, a lack of takeoff, but no substantive criminality. It echoed several things I've read recently: the boys' night out at a pub in Westmore (South Australia) came a decade or two after Ireland's time at Northmead recounted in his The Glass Canoe. As always, the blokes often cannot communicate at all, and can almost never say what they mean. Here the alcohol just looses fists and loosens teeth. Was it always thus, did World War II change things or does memory reach only that far back now? Yeah, Erskineville Kings put brother v brother on the screen a long time ago, and the father too. The gestures at Gippsland reminded me that I need to finish Don Watson's The Bush. There is a lot of AFL, but not in the corporate David Williamson The Club style. The structure is something like Tim Winton's The Turning: a collection of not quite cohesive shorts, a vague sense of it not quite adding up to a novel. The capricious violence and general blokeyness evoked Trainspotting (as always) despite the lack of vernacular.

A bridge chapter in the middle (13. Joe, Penny, Molly and Lee Stevenson) put me in mind of Captain Fantastic, but substitutes a deeply-held belief in personal liberation with almost caricatured religion. Somewhat annoyingly some of the branches of the family aren't fleshed out; Stan, for instance, is pivotal but only in that one scene. Is there remorse, a family? Apparently not, going by the tree at the start. Disability gets a clear-eyed treatment, and that is perhaps Mitchell's real strength. There is no politics.

Cameron Woodhead at the Smage.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others: An essay on the fear of narcissism.

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Kindle. I was almost persuaded not to bother with this by Jennifer Schuessler's review in the New York Times, but I have a soft spot for Dombek based on an essay of hers in n+1, being similarly "born in the uncanny valley between the millennial generation and Generation X". Come to think of it, that essay (How to Quit) and this are pretty much about the same thing: deciding when to quit, how fast to run, and how to justify it afterwards. Presumably she keeps the happier bits, the bits she sticks with, to herself.

I found it very difficult to figure out what she was trying to do here. It traverses some of the same space as i hate the internet but leaves out the politics of technology, and suffers from too much parsing of received cultural wisdom. This is not an empirical work, and nor is it much of a polemic. She asks the concept of narcissism to bear more than it can. From my spot on the couch, looking for answers in the DSM is already a sign of mental unwellness.

So, cutting to the chase, are Generation Y the most narcissistic generation ever? I have no horse in that race, but would simply observe that they are the first generation with access to widely democratized broadcast technology. I seem to recall that the baby boomers previously held that self-regarding crown, and Generation Y has little hope of bending society to their whims anywhere near as much. Anyway, how narcissistic can you be while living with your parents into your 30s?

Dombek is not a STEM type, and lacks the systems-thinking of, for instance, Cathy O'Neill. In her chapter The Millennial, we essentially get the McNamara fallacy operating in the confirmation mode. It may have helped to separate out narcissism from other personality characteristics such as introversion, and examine the increasing culture of self-reinforcement that comes from, for instance, having algorithms only feed you news that does not ruffle your politics. You know, the general feeling of being in an echo chamber these days. Her chapter on Freud is mildly entertaining but somewhat hopelessly unscientific. Whatever his diagnosis, I don't consider Breivik narcissistic so much as psychopathic. Unempathetic.

More broadly, Dombek tries to engage with the long running project of materialism, of reducing minds to brains. Within her frame, the central problem here is whether to excuse mental pathology by blaming neural dysfunction, and she doesn't really grasp that nettle. Is narcissism the inevitable byproduct of the mass individualism birthed by the Enlightenment? Does it blow with the prevailing economic winds? Does anyone navigate the modern world without it? What is its relation to suicide?

Gemma Sief spills more words.

The Boys from Brazil

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Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier in the lead, James Mason supporting and Bruno Ganz in a lab coat. Something of an alt-history: Josef Mengele (Peck) reincarnates Hitler as a blue-eyed black-haired boy while Ezra Lieberman (Olivier, masterful) does the Nazi Hunter thing. Their meeting at the end tends to a farcical fight scene and ruins what is otherwise a promising premise. Strangely Mengele was still alive when this got released in 1978.

Prompted by a review of Affinity Konar's Mischling.

Henry Handel Richardson: The Getting of Wisdom.

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Kindle. I guess I didn't really know what I was in for with this one. Richardson is, of course, Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson and is clearly writing about what she knows: doing horrid time at a Melbourne private school for young ladies. Not quite everything goes as one would predict, but enough does, and enough is taken for granted about the prevailing society of Melbourne that this is not as illuminating as it could have been. The writing gets playful at times, and it seems very strange to imagine livestock being anywhere near Collins Street. I liked the title and perhaps it has brought solace over the years to some who don't fit.

Maskin, Sen, Arrow: The Arrow Impossibility Theorem (Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series).

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Kindle. I discovered this and the lecture series via a review by Athan (see also Dick Burkhart's). It is OK. Amartya Sen's proof is quite slick, and while I didn't think about it too deeply, it seemed quite close to the proof I mechanized from his 1970 classic Collective Choice and Social Welfare. More modern proofs try to juice the theorem for other insights; Saari gives a geometric analysis, for instance, that I never get around to comprehending.

The book consists of two lectures by Amartya Sen and Eric Maskin, a response by Kenneth Arrow, three papers about related issues and an introduction. As usual Sen is mostly concerned about social welfare implications, and gets a bit obscure. In many ways he is doing philosophy here, and as a result where he ends up is not very satisfying. Maskin focuses on implications for voting, and with Dasgupta claims to show that the majority rule is the most robust one on offer, in a precise sense, in a sort-of generalization of May's Theorem. Unfortunately they require a continuum of voters, which seems nuts; unbounded, possibly countably infinite, well, maybe, but a continuum? (They claim things work just as well with a large but finite number (p108), and I would have kept reading if their main development had in fact used that. Also see the coment at the bottom of Athan's review about measurability.) Arrow is politely skeptical in his commentary:

I do not yet quite understand how Eric's results can help us in the case where his conditions fail. [...] When you are dealing with infinite dimensional elements, can you really compute the results? Some things are simply quite extremely difficult to compute. They’re not constructible in the sense that there is no finite process that will enable an individual to carry out the calculation. This applies to a lot of problems, not just those that are social in nature, such as climate change, but also to individual as well as social choice problems. To put it more simply, you could say, "You choose the best of that heap." But then how one exactly does that can be quite complicated if not impossible in a finite length of time.

Arrow also endorses the comparison of personal utilities ala the behavioural economists, if only because people find these questions meaningful (and despite "hard boiled" economists having difficulty in modelling them). He provides some cutesy anecdotes about this work of his, of more than sixty years ago.

Matt Ruff: The Mirage.

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Kindle. A recommendation from David S. The premise is quite promising: what if there was United Arab States (UAS), a superpower, while North America was composed of the underdeveloped Christian States of America (in the east), with Texas being a republic with close (OPEC) ties to the UAS. Let's quietly forget about Asia, Africa, Australia and South America for today. Ruff also places Israel in central Europe, and aligns the Jews with the Muslims. (I wonder how possible that ever could have been.) The key event that gets things moving is that September 11 in this world happens on November 9, and involves twin towers in Baghdad.

OK, he's not going for plausibility with any of that, and this is not always a profitable vantage point for humour, pathos, provocation or insight, but when it does click he has a very slick device on his hands. (I'd say he is mostly respectful of what he needs to be.) Perhaps it would have been more successfully deployed as a TV mini-series however; the many descriptions of violence are often wallowed in, and while he pushes modern Muslim lady Amal to the front with her American-style violent-woman abilities (martial arts and guns) she's never more than a cartoon. One of the weakest points is Ruff's remaking of some of America's evilest dudes (Koresh, McVeigh, ... but not Manson) into heroes in his alt universe. Or perhaps I got confused. Of course bin Laden is evil in all universes, just as Saddam and sons are sybaritic.

Shrug. It was sort-of fun. There is an obvious debt to Dick's The Man in the High Castle that I read last year and completely forgot about.

Joshua Hammer reviewed it for the New York Times.

The Departed

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With Tigôn on a rainy Sunday afternoon/evening in Hồ Chí Minh City. I think I liked it even more than the previous two times around, and T got into at least some of the suspense. Amazingly it is now #43 in the IMDB top-250.

Cathy O'Neil: Weapons of Math Destruction.

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Kindle. The premise of this book is that mathematical models not only can be, but are, very damaging to society. O'Neill aims for a Al Roth-style enumeration of their key flaws, which I think are:

  • people being unaware of the model or the uses to which their data are put;
  • feedback, in the sense that the model may reinforce its own assumptions; and
  • scaling out, the capacity to grow exponentially.

Unfortunately there is no mathematics in the main section of this book, and moreover most of O'Neill's complaints hold even of non-mathematical models; such models only intrinsically make things more efficient, not better or worse. Given that flaws in general systems have been canvassed at length already (see, for instance, the venerable comp.risks), her only scope for novelty is to hammer the vacuum of values in current-day U.S.A. But perhaps, as usual, I am not her target audience, or the "mathematics is morally neutral" meme has taken on Nuremberg overtones, or even more likely, I'm an outlier.

I'd go further and claim that one is better off contemplating the pathologies of general systems, however realised: simply marry John Gall's Systemantics with the McNamara fallacy and you have a whimsical but soundly provocative and fecund account. (See Matt Levine for one such synthesis.) For the more technical, perhaps Mirowski's Machine Dreams and thereabouts is more persuasive. For Generation Y, try Kobek: is there any reason to think that libertarian geeks would aim for anything other than what we now have?

O'Neill is not careful to separate out the data modelling from the control aspects, nor the various kinds of feedback in systems. On the former, consider a lone researcher cooking up the perfect machine learning system. In many ways this is innocuous as they have no power to influence the world; it is almost a purely descriptive activity (up to the researcher's own biases, of course; as with all science, there is always the question of what to observe, and more generally, choice of ontology, logic, etc.). Conversely, consider exactly the same hooked up to the systems of government, or Facebook: it may now do immense damage, or perhaps even something worthwhile. The difference is in how much and what kind of control is exerted, not (just) the model built. This is a gap many data scientists can fit their morals into.

As for feedback, she finds it offensive that some systems sometimes become self-justifying in pernicious ways, as they can exert pressure on their inputs to optimize their outputs with respect to the control criterion (see, for example, the just-mentioned post by Matt Levine on the recent Wells Fargo fiasco). For instance: poor people tend to have poor credit scores, which makes it harder for them to finance things that might them get out of poverty, thereby reinforcing their poor credit rating. That the finance outfit therefore potentially misprices risk is beyond the scope of the model. Conversely feedback is used to train the models in the first place, which we might call "evidence based policy" in another setting. This leads to a point she doesn't quite make: modelling is an essentially reactionary activity, an attempt to make the future conform to the past (for otherwise the model is in error, or the control too weak, which leads to another round of optimization; witness Matt Levine on index funds).

So, is there anything more to this book? Well, maybe. She was apparently horrified that outfits like DE Shaw gouge their profits out of "dumb money" pension funds and so forth. I'm more sanguine about that: market access is cheaper than ever for institutional investors (according to institutional investors), and really, this is simply the markets teaching dumb money the expensive lesson of needing to be either less dumb or not there. I have more sympathy for the argument that (small groups of) individuals cannot manage risk adequately over the long term (say lifetimes) and that the government should take an active role there, as it has in generations past. O'Neill (Chapter 10) observes that by showing different ads to different constituencies, common knowledge about political candidates decreases, which splinters democracy. I agree with her, but really, this happens with or without mathematical models simply because of people's priors (selective hearing). Sure, exacerbation, I get it.

In Chapter 5, O'Neill takes the "broken windows" fallacy to task, just as the Freakonomics boys did a decade ago. I got a little excited to see her propose a platinum-rule style of policing: roughly, "treat others as they wish to be treated", and specifically have the police maintain the standards of each community, not getting too far ahead or behind those. (Sounds like ... England! If you're sufficiently English.) The multifacted identity she pushes in the conclusion is old hat to, for instance, greybearded econo-moralists like Amartya Sen, who would probably have been accused by the O'Neill of 1975 of cybernizing society, what with all his mathematics and all.

Ultimately I didn't learn much here. I already thought that modelling merely promotes the normative, and is extremely illiberal therefore. She doesn't take models to task for being opaque and lacking explanatory (and not just predictive) force. There are far richer accounts of the history of operations research out there. She mostly argues from authority. Perhaps there's more meat in the endnotes. I would have been less disappointed if I'd read more of her blog; for instance this post makes it seem she has a narrow experience of the world. David Runciman writes at length on why this might be, despite O'Neil's extensive education.

Sue Halpern.

Pete's Dragon

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At the CGV CT Plaza near the airport, 2:30pm session, with Tigôn. Disney, a kids' fantasy, so-so, pushing the sacredness of the forest but for what seem like dubious reasons. I would have been more persuaded if Karl Urban happened upon Sleeping Beauty or somesuch. It invites comparison with the very recent The Jungle Book.

Glenn Kenny: "This sentimental, nearly genteel movie demonstrates there’s a world of difference between invoking magic and conjuring it."


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Galaxy Cinema, Nguyễn Du, 4:15pm, 85kVND. An amiable 90-odd minutes with Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart reliving the "miracle on the Hudson" of 2009. (I don't remember it.) Clint Eastwood's direction is as flawless as it has ever been. The courtroom-ish investigation structure struck me as unnecessary, but I don't know what could have replaced it; the stakes for Sully were high, but for us it could only show the asinine side of American bureaucracy. Fortunately Eastwood dialed that back a fair way, and somehow venerates awesome technical mastery without sliding into hagiography or pushing any particular political line; it's a movie of the old school.

Michael Wilson interviews Eastwood for the New York Times. Manohla Dargis.

The Congress

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A recommendation from Roman W. He liked it because it was based on the book by Stanislaw Lem. This is mostly a lot of impressionistic animation that evokes earlier attempts at similar things. Robin Wright cops it in the neck, both personally and within the movie, but unfortunately doesn't seem up to carrying things. Why doesn't Harvey Keitel make it to the dreamworld? I have no idea what the point of it all was. There's one scene that apes the famous Slim Pickens moment in Dr Strangelove, and another the Balthazar Getty / Patricia Arquette Song to the Siren scene in David Lynch's Lost Highway. If you're bored you can try to trainspot the crowds.

Antonio García Martínez: Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley.

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Kindle. This is a pair of stories about Silicon Valley, 2008 to 2012 or so. The first is about bootstrapping a startup, and is quite amusing. The second is about doing time at Facebook, the wrong way, and is more tedious.

The author has a lot of form for trolling the Silicon Valley true believers, or perhaps wannabes, but is very careful not to shit in the Y-Combinator/Paul Graham bed that enables the events he recounts here. He is widely read but considers himself uncultured. The Biblical epigraphs are wearing. The fog of war encloses everything. Developing successful projects sounds just like academic research.

At the centre of the author's concerns (but do remember he's a troll) is the question of values. He tries to present himself as greedy, but somewhat fails at it; when it comes to it he's selfishly hedonistic and the cash only motivates him so far. Is greed enough to contemplate, then endure, the activities required to save the huge sums that give your children access to the upper classes of the U.S.? (Perhaps I am being naive in believing that this is where his cash is headed; at least he realises he'd make a poor father.) He's right to be scornful of the people who aren't chasing real wealth but merely the reflected glory of working at Facebook (etc) and basking in the exclusiveness. But we're all young once. I also don't doubt that those further up the pole do truly know the score about the present-day extreme inequality, whatever the manners around it; though perhaps they're more content to leave the messy bits to an ineffectual and underfunded government than those further down the food chain are.

I didn't learn as much about the internet ad market as I feel I should have. He does a good job of explaining the difference between Google and Facebook on that front: Google knows you want to buy stuff, so its ads are more like shopfront bling, whereas Facebook is guessing, and is therefore more like a billboard. Amazon never seems to do a good job at proposing stuff I really want to buy, and I don't know why. Beyond that, I have no clear idea what information Facebook and their partners might mutually leak on an ad exchange, and how valuable it might be. Al Roth he is not.

There are some cutting observations here, but nothing spectacularly original. Capitalism desacralises everything; well, not really, it venerates mammon and power, which he applies to a defence of Zuck's genius. Annoyingly he takes it for granted that Facebook is somehow necessary, that it provides some essential value, which I think stands in need of argument. Overall the analysis is far blunter than Kobek's. He claims that the best deals are those that leave both parties feeling slightly screwed, which is at direct odds with that Right Coast bit of technology, the adjusted winner procedure. Overall his commentary sounds good but is really inessential, which is roughly the pond he's been swimming in all these years.

Athan's review at Amazon sold it to me. I think I originally passed on it after the Hacker News coverage of the New York Times review by Jonathon A. Knee. David Streitfeld, also at the New York Times. Martínez on Facebook shutting down his baby. Jacob Weisberg.

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan: The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them — And They Shape Us.

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Kindle. A pointer from Noah Smith at Bloomberg. Contrary to his brief opinion, this book is quite thin and Roth said most of it (and more) better, earlier, etc.. Fisman and Sullivan throw around many words and concepts without properly defining them (even informally) and engage in a bit too much deification for comfort. (Look, I'm as much of a fan of Kenneth Arrow as anyone, but John Quiggin, for instance, has banged on long enough about the limits of the standard equilibrium models that I found the discussion in this book to be almost misleading. I would dearly like to read a pop-sci account of those things and what has happened since 1954.)

Most annoying is the flabby prose, which is sometimes so repeatedly repetitious that it feels like the authors hope to persuade the reader through percussive (concussive) repetitions and not argumentation. (Yes, these guys were aiming at Freakonomics... and missed.) I started with some hope that they would unpack the feedback effects between markets and society (coarsely put, people become more calculating and often cynical) but that final chapter is one of the weakest in the book.

They did dig up some good pointers into the auction theory literature though:

  • Lawrence M. Ausubel and Paul Milgrom: The Lovely but Lonely Vickrey Auction, in Combinatorial Auctions, eds. P. Cranton, Y. Shoham, and R. Steinberg (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).
  • Michael H. Rothkopf, Thirteen Reasons Why the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves Process Is Not Practical, Operations Research 55, no. 2 (2007).

Athan at Amazon. Jill at goodreads.

One Eyed Jacks

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Marlon Brando directs and leads, 1961. Apparently he took this over from Kubrick, and was sufficiently scarred by it that he didn't direct anything else. It's a classic Western tale of revenge, laced with romance, straightforward. Slim Pickens is solid as the creepy deputy, and Karl Malden does a great job as the jilting partner and later sheriff. The cinematography around Monterey Peninsula is great.