The hidden message in The Silence of the Lambs

One of the iconic lines in The Silence of the Lambs is of course Hannibal Lecter declaring “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

Reddit user mrcchapman points out that the line has two meanings, the literal one and a more coded message.

Lecter could be treated with drugs called monoamine oxidase inhibitors - MAOIs. As a psychiatrist, Lecter knows this.

The three things you can't eat with MAOIs? Liver, beans, wine.

Lecter is a) cracking a joke for his own amusement, and b) saying he's not taking his meds.

All those years in prison, and no one realized Lecter wasn't taking his meds. Brilliant.

The aesthetics of tennis

While the graphically inclined would no doubt find the layouts of other athletic playing courts and fields intriguing, there is something special about the tennis court: pleasingly symmetrical, relatively small in size, and, since they contain at most four contestants, never so crowded that the design can be smothered by action. One does not play atop a tennis court so much as inside it. The same basic design is utilized by women and men, young children and the elderly, ball-chasing buoyant players and hard faced, serious drillers.

"It's set up with particular parameters in mind—like there's a doubles alley; it's a very functional grid, and it's a grid that I connect with," Fletcher said.

"It's a geometry that has a story to it."

B. David Zarley on why artists love tennis.

The path traced by a tennis ball during a rally conjures triangles and arcs and other geometric patterns that really tickle that union of math and art.

And don't even get me started on Roger Federer. I suspect the reason he's so many people's favorite player is not because he's one of the greatest players of all time but instead for the sheer aesthetic perfection of all his strokes. There are dozens of YouTube videos of Federer hitting tennis balls in slow motion, and watching them triggers such strange pleasure sensations in the brain that they can't be called anything but pornographic.

[Since Federer is out of this Australian Open, the most beautiful stroke left in the men's draw is his countrymen Stanislav Wawrinka's one-handed backhand. Here are 70 backhand winners of his in HD. When he keeps his front shoulder closed and wings the ball down the line from the backhand side...lord have mercy.]

Conversation with Adam Curtis

Jon Ronson interviewed Adam Curtis over email. Good stuff.

On social networks as echo chambers (a common lament about the internet):

But I do really agree with you about Twitter domestically. Twitter – and other social media – passes lots of information around. But it tends to be the kind of information that people know that others in that particular network will like and approve of. So what you get is a kind of mutual grooming. One person sends on information that they know others will respond to in accepted ways. And then, in return, those others will like the person who gave them that piece of information.

So information becomes a currency through which you buy friends and become accepted into the system. That makes it very difficult for bits of information that challenge the accepted views to get into the system. They tend to get squeezed out.

I think the thing that proves my point dramatically are the waves of shaming that wash through social media – the thing you have spotted and describe so well in your book. It's what happens when someone says something, or does something, that disturbs the agreed protocols of the system. The other parts react furiously and try to eject that destabilising fragment and regain stability.

...

I have this perverse theory that, in about ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s. Like a John Carpenter film – where, among the ruins, there are fierce warrior gangs, all with their own complex codes and rules – and all shouting at each other. And everyone else will have fled to the suburbs of the internet, where you can move on and change the world. I think those suburbs are going to be the exciting, dynamic future of the internet. But to build them I think it will be necessary to leave the warrior trolls behind. And to move beyond the tech-utopianism that simply says that passing information around a network is a new form of democracy. That is naive, because it ignores the realities of power.

On the failings of modern journalism:

The thing that fascinates me about modern journalism is that people started turning away from it before the rise of the internet. Or, at least, in my experience that's what happened. Which has made me a bit distrustful of all that "blame the internet" rhetoric about the death of newspapers.

I think there was a much deeper reason. It's that journalists began to find the changes that were happening in the world very difficult to describe in ways that grabbed their readers' imagination.

It's intimately related to what has happened to politics, because journalism and politics are so inextricably linked. I describe in the film how, as politicians were faced with growing chaos and complexity from the 1980s onwards, they handed power to other institutions. Above all to finance, but also to computer and managerial systems.

But the politicians still wanted to change the world – and retain their status. So in response they reinvented other parts of the world they thought they could control into incredibly simplistic fables of good versus evil. I think Tony Blair is the clearest example of this – a man who handed power in domestic policy making over to focus groups, and then decided to go and invade Iraq.

And I think this process led journalism to face the same problem. They discovered that the new motors of power – finance and the technical systems that run it, algorithms that try and read the past to manage the future, managerial systems based on risk and "measured outcomes" – are not just obscure and boring. They are almost impossible to turn into gripping narratives. I mean, I find them a nightmare to make films about, because there is nothing visual, just people in modern offices doing keystrokes on computers.

Where I'm often most frustrated with modern journalism is in its coverage of areas it does not understand well, technology being one of them. I'm not saying you have to be a programmer to be a tech journalist or a filmmaker to be a movie critic, but not having domain knowledge limits the scope of your critique. One more layman's point of view isn't all that useful at the margins, and as with things like the last financial crisis, the lack of understanding from the financial press removed what we think of as one of the watchdogs of democracy, the fourth estate.

The one saving grace of the internet is that many technology domain experts can chime in. Still, for many reasons, most do not. They may be too busy, or they may bite their tongue for competitive or political reasons (technology is a heavily connected industry).

Given technology's growing political, economic, and cultural power, a vigilant and independent check is needed. A Gawker or Valleywag picks off just the most egregious and obvious of moral failings, but much of that is distraction from far more complex and significant issues.

MIT (Male Idiot Theory)

Sex differences in mortality and admissions to hospital emergency departments have been well documented,1 2 3 4 56 7 and hypotheses put forward to account for these differences. These studies confirm that males are more at risk than females. Males are more likely to be admitted to an emergency department after accidental injuries, more likely to be admitted with a sporting injury, and more likely to be in a road traffic collision with a higher mortality rate.1 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Some of these differences may be attributable to cultural and socioeconomic factors: males may be more likely to engage in contact and high risk sports, and males may be more likely to be employed in higher risk occupations. However, sex differences in risk seeking behaviour have been reported from an early age, raising questions about the extent to which these behaviours can be attributed purely to social and cultural differences.10 11 12

However, there is a class of risk—the “idiotic” risk—that is qualitatively different from those associated with, say, contact sports or adventure pursuits such as parachuting. Idiotic risks are defined as senseless risks, where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final.

According to “male idiot theory” (MIT) many of the differences in risk seeking behaviour, emergency department admissions, and mortality may be explained by the observation that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things.16There are anecdotal data supporting MIT, but to date there has been no systematic analysis of sex differences in idiotic risk taking behaviour. In this paper we present evidence in support of this hypothesis using data on idiotic behaviours demonstrated by winners of the Darwin Award.17 18 19 20 21

I'd never heard of Male Idiot Theory, but a more perfect acronym couldn't be imagined. The conclusion of this piece is perfect and makes me wonder why more research papers aren't written with such a wonderful sense of humor.

Northcutt invokes a group selectionist, “survival of the species” argument, with individuals selflessly removing themselves from the gene pool. We believe this view to be flawed, but we do think this phenomenon probably deserves an evolutionary explanation. Presumably, idiotic behaviour confers some, as yet unidentified, selective advantage on those who do not become its casualties. Until MIT gives us a full and satisfactory explanation of idiotic male behaviour, hospital emergency departments will continue to pick up the pieces, often literally.

We believe MIT deserves further investigation, and, with the festive season upon us, we intend to follow up with observational field studies and an experimental study—males and females, with and without alcohol—in a semi-naturalistic Christmas party setting.

I once read a paper about why males are disproportionately represented among alcoholics, criminals (and thus the prison population), the homeless, drug users. The theory is that society requires some of its citizens to be the risk-takers who achieve great advances for society but who must also bear the brunt of the resultant high rate of failure. For some reason, society nominated males to be those risk-takers and thus they're disproportionately represented both among revolutionaries and the fallen.

Does anyone know what paper I'm referring to? I recollect writing about that piece but now I can't find it in my archive or via Google. I know it's online somewhere, it was a great read.

Give kickers the boot

Benjamin Morris notes that the consistent improvement in NFL placekicker accuracy across the years means we need to update our fourth down strategy cards.

If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you scream at your television a lot when coaches sheepishly kick or punt instead of going for it on fourth down. This is particularly true in the “dead zone” between roughly the 25- and 40-yard lines, where punts accomplish little and field goals are supposedly too long to be good gambles.

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Team Go-For-It since the ’90s. And we were right, back then. With ’90s-quality kickers, settling for field goals in the dead zone was practically criminal. As of 10 years ago — around when these should-we-go-for-it models rose to prominence — we were still right. But a lot has changed in 10 years. Field-goal kicking is now good enough that many previous calculations are outdated.

...

But more importantly, these breakdowns allow us to essentially recalculate the bot’s recommendations given a different set of assumptions. And the improvement in kicking dramatically changes the calculus of whether to go for it on fourth down in the dead zone. The following table compares “Go or No” charts from the 4th Down Bot as it stands right now, versus how it would look with projected 2015 kickers8:

My problem with field goal kicking is that it's boring. It's nothing at all like the rest of football. I dislike any sport which suddenly morphs into something else entirely, something worse, near the end of the contest, when things should be at their most tense and dramatic.

In basketball, a fluid, fast-paced game often ends with one foul after the other, forcing 9 world-class athletes to stand around while one guy shoots free throws. In football, if teams aren't just running the clock out or kneeling down at the end of the game, they're often lining up for a field goal, a specialized craft that has nothing to do with running, throwing, or catching the football. It's as if a tennis match that went to a tiebreak were settled by having the two players go to the sideline, replaced by two random people coming in to settle matters by playing Cornhole. I'd just as soon do away with field goal kicking in football and have teams go for it on fourth down all the time.

This is one advantage for baseball. To finish off the game, you have to get batters out just like you had to for the previous innings in the game.

The bizarre Yelp top 100 restaurant list

Will Oremus has a good explanation for why Yelp's just released second annual top 100 places to eat in America list is so strange.

Only a handful or restaurants in the world rate three Michelin stars. But more than 40 percent of all Yelp reviews are perfect scores, suggesting that five stars on Yelp entails satisfaction rather than perfection. Average hundreds of reviews of the same establishment, and you’ll find that its overall rating is influenced far more by the number of dissatisfied customers than by how much the five-star reviewers loved it. The best-rated restaurants on Yelp, then, are not so much the most loved as the least hated.

No wonder Yelp’s top 100 restaurants tend to be down-home joints specializing in distinctive cuisines like poke, barbecue, tacos, and hot dogs. Customers know exactly what they’re looking for when they go there, reducing the chances that they’ll order something unfamiliar and end up disliking it. They also know not to expect the world when they pull over at outside a roadside stand on the highway home from Lake Tahoe, or a condominium complex in Hawaii.

Oremus also notes the impact of exogenous factors like weather, neighborhood demographics, and time of year in customer ratings.

Makes sense to me. Of restaurants I love, the only ones that get 5-star average ratings on Yelp are the low-priced, comfort-food types. Most of the higher end eateries I favor have 3.5 to 4 star ratings on Yelp. Trust your gut.

The same applies for books on Amazon. Almost none of my favorite books have an average review of 5-stars on Amazon, and in fact I look on books that have such a high average rating with suspicion. Unlike restaurants, which attract many random samplers, many books are only read and reviewed by true believers, and that selection bias can be death on the signal quality of the average rating.

Lessons from Reid Hoffman

Ben Casnocha wrote up 16 lessons he learned from Reid Hoffman after having spent years with Hoffman as his chief of staff.

Here's a portion of one:

Speed

His first principle is speed. His most tweeted quote ever is, “If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.” His second most tweeted quote ever is, “In founding a startup, you throw yourself off a cliff and build an airplane on the way down.”

Practically, he employs several decision making hacks to prioritize speed as a factor for which option is best—and to speed up the process of making the decision itself. When faced with a set of options, he frequently will make a provisional decision instinctually based on the current information. Then he will note what additional information he would need to disprove his provisional decision and go get that. What many do instead – at their own peril – is encounter a situation in which they have limited information, punt on the decision until they gather more information, and endure an information-gathering process that takes longer than expected. Meanwhile, the world changes.

If you move quickly, there’ll be mistakes borne of haste. If you’re a manager and care seriously about speed, you’ll need to tell your people you’re wiling to accept the tradeoffs. Reid did this with me. We agreed I was going to make judgment calls on a range of issues on his behalf without checking with him. He told me, “In order to move fast, I expect you’ll make some foot faults. I’m okay with an error rate of 10-20% — times when I would have made a different decision in a given situation – if it means you can move fast.” I felt empowered to make decisions with this ratio in mind—and it was incredibly liberating.

Speed certainly matters to an extreme degree in a startup context. Big companies are different. Reid once reflected to me that the key for big companies like LinkedIn is not to pursue strategies where being fastest is critical—big companies that adopt strategies that depend on pure speed battles will always lose. Instead, they need to devise strategies where their slowness can become a strength.

Here's another:

When there’s a complex list of pros and cons driving a potentially expensive action, Reid seeks a single decisive reason to go for it—not a blended reason. For example, we were once discussing whether it’d make sense for him to travel to China. There was the LinkedIn expansion activity in China; some fun intellectual events happening; the launch of The Start-Up of You in Chinese. A variety of possible good reasons to go, but none justified a trip in and of itself. He said, “There needs to be one decisive reason. And then the worthiness of the trip needs to be measured against that one reason. If I go, then we can backfill into the schedule all the other secondary activities. But if I go for a blended reason, I’ll almost surely come back and feel like it was a waste a time.” He did not go on the trip. If you come up with a list of many reasons to do something, Nassim Taleb once wrote, you are trying to convince yourself—if there isn’t one clear reason, don’t do it. (An analogous belief Reid has about consumer internet business models: there’s generally one main business model. Listing a blend of possible revenue streams makes investors nervous. LinkedIn is the exception that proves this rule!)

One last gem:

12. Trade up on trust even if it means you trade down on competency.

Should you start a company with friends? All things being equal, Reid says yes, because you can move more quickly with trusted friends because you already understand how each other thinks and talks. And moving quickly? That’s critical in the early days of a startup.

But what if all things aren’t equal? If you’re choosing between working with someone who’s a trusted friend and a 7 out of 10 on competence, versus a stranger who’s a 9 out of 10 on competence, who should you pick? Answer: if the trusted friend is a fast learner, pick the trusted friend.

Trade up on trust, even if it means you have to trade down on competency a bit. In other words, choose to work with someone you know who’s a fast learner over someone who’s a bit more qualified who you do not know. Assuming the person you know and trust is in Permanent Beta, he or she can round out their gaps in skills or experience in short order.

As with sports, organizations need to be aligned in both principle and process for any particular strategy to work. Some baseball teams are more analytically driven than others, but that matters little if you can't translate analytical recommendations into on-field execution. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays seemed to be a paragon of such top to bottom alignment in recent years, one reason I'm excited Joe Maddon has moved over to manage the Cubs.

If your organization is in a position where speed matters above all else but management beats the team up over errors you'd expect them to make moving at such a pace, something will give. Nitpick people to death and don't be shocked when they suddenly move much more slowly than you'd want.