Pickpocketing

Three links on pickpocketing:

  • PKPKT is a new iOS game that encourages people to steal virtual currency from other players using low energy bluetooth.
  • Hulu has the Criterion edition of the great Robert Bresson film Pickpocket online for streaming.
  • Many people still have not heard of the world's currently acknowledged pickpocket king, Apollo Robbins. His TED talk is a solid introduction. Watch to the very end. Trust me.

Someone is lying about their number

Everyone knows men are promiscuous by nature. It’s part of the genetic strategy that evolved to help men spread their genes far and wide. The strategy is different for a woman, who has to go through so much just to have a baby and then nurture it. She is genetically programmed to want just one man who will stick with her and help raise their children.

Surveys bear this out. In study after study and in country after country, men report more, often many more, sexual partners than women.

One survey, recently reported by the federal government, concluded that men had a median of seven female sex partners. Women had a median of four male sex partners. Another study, by British researchers, stated that men had 12.7 heterosexual partners in their lifetimes and women had 6.5.

But there is just one problem, mathematicians say. It is logically impossible for heterosexual men to have more partners on average than heterosexual women. Those survey results cannot be correct.

The mathematics of mating. That there is a social incentive for men to exaggerate their figure and women to lower theirs must factor into it, whether or not you agree with that social norm.

Dr. Gale is still troubled. He said invoking women who are outside the survey population cannot begin to explain a difference of 75 percent in the number of partners, as occurred in the study saying men had seven partners and women four. Something like a prostitute effect, he said, “would be negligible.” The most likely explanation, by far, is that the numbers cannot be trusted.

Ronald Graham, a professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of California, San Diego, agreed with Dr. Gale. After all, on average, men would have to have three more partners than women, raising the question of where all those extra partners might be.

“Some might be imaginary,” Dr. Graham said. “Maybe two are in the man’s mind and one really exists.”

Still some Moneyball out there

After Moneyball came out, and after some of the strategies outlined within became more widely accepted throughout baseball, many thought Oakland's window of strategic arbitrage had come to a close.

But this article at Baseball Prospectus (normally behind a paywall, available for free today and tomorrow as a sitewide holiday preview) about Oakland's 2013 team shows they might still have some cards up their sleeve. Oakland finished the season with the 4th lowest payroll but the 4th best offense. How, given that many teams now understand the importance of walks and on base percentage, did Oakland manage that?

This time, Beane spent more to fill premium defensive positions. Their commonality is unmistakable: while fly balls around the league grew rarer, Beane stocked his lineup with air-inclined hitters. As a result, 60 percent of Oakland's plate appearances last season were taken by “fly-ball hitters” (defined as a hitter whose ground ball rate is one standard deviation below the league mean).

●●●●●

Let’s contextualize Oakland’s outlier ways: 60 percent of their plate appearances were taken by fly-ball hitters, who by definition compose 16 percent of the league. No other team in the past nine years has touched 45 percent. Beane’s roster was so ground-allergic that only 0.8 percent of their plate appearances were taken by “ground-ball hitters.” That’s not just a concentrated effort to target fly balls. That’s a mission statement.

The 38 percent of their fly ball hitters’ plate appearances against neutral pitchers resulted in a .282 True Average. That’s better than the solid league TAv in that matchup (.276)—and it occurred for the Athletics four times as often!

Moreover, Oakland fly ball hitters hit .302 against GB pitchers, a matchup occurring nine percent of the time. Another way of putting that: In 547 plate appearances against ground-ballers, fly ball-hitting Athletics (such as low-salary acquisitions like Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss) hit like $16-million Matt Holliday. The rest of the time—over 90 percent of PAs—they hit like Chase Headley.

The Book claimed that managers weren’t using this platoon advantage enough. It appears that Billy Beane has, effectively transforming his batting roster into 12 Chase Headleys and a Matt Holliday.

The marginal return of innovative thinking hasn't diminished in Oakland after all. Maybe if the A's can pull off a World Series win one of these years Brad Pitt can come out of retirement to play Beane in the triumphant sequel to Moneyball.

[Footnote: if you're a fan of the cognitive side of sports and you enjoy baseball, an annual subscription to Baseball Prospectus is a no-brainer. Also, The Book mentioned above is The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. It collects a lot of what's come to be accepted wisdom among the geeks about optimal baseball strategy and is a great reference on the topic. I've long thought about writing a book like this about business strategy. Maybe someday when I don't have a day job.]

FOMO

Until yesterday, I thought the idea of FOMO was a joke. It stands for a "Fear of Missing Out" — the worry that, at any moment, a happening party is going on, and you're missing it. The history of the term has been lost in the internet archives, but it's believed to have emerged shortly after YOLO, in the days when two-syllable acronyms were the done thing.

FOMO, of course, came long before the internet era. Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln are two well-known FOMO sufferers. The latter was a notorious philistine who hated the theater, but went anyway.

It's now apparent that we need to start taking FOMO seriously. As with almost any word, it has been associated with a number of diagnostic illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, social phobias, and even psychosomatic illnesses. Can you imagine being so miserable about missing a party that it makes you ill?

The rest here.

Without any facts to back up the assertion, I'm not sure if it's true that Churchill and Lincoln suffered FOMO, but that's a new one to me. Also, that Lincoln was a philistine?! If only he'd told his wife, “Our American Cousin? Again? I hate that play. Also, Ford's theater is so far, the seats in the box are so cramped.”

I'm old enough that I really don't experience too much FOMO anymore, but Twitter does exacerbate a particular strain of FOMO that is especially destructive for writers, and that is a sort of intellectual conversational FOMO. The stream goes by so quickly, a conversation at the digital water cooler can pop up, happen, and then disappear back into the ether without you ever knowing about it. If you manage to catch up later, the moment has passed and it feels awkward to chime in and bring the blue lined conversation back into people's stream.

This type of FOMO isn't as gnawing as the sense I felt in college when I had nothing to do on a Friday night and the dorm was near empty, but it is distracting enough that trying to get out your 500 words a day as a writer can be challenging. There's always another browser tab waiting, a few more information nuggets dropped into the stream to skim.

The no punt offense

This isn't a new topic, but I've been catching up on old old reading over the first day of my holiday break, and the Kevin Kelley's no-punt offense is a football strategy that rhymes with David Arseneault's basketball strategy The System which I wrote about recently.

Ask any stats geek about any sport and they'll tell you no team plays the optimal strategy as dictated by the numbers. In the NBA, teams don't take enough three pointers (though they are coming around on that one). In MLB, teams call for too many sacrifice bunts and often save their best relief pitcher, their closer, for the 9th inning when they could be used to greater leverage earlier in the game. In the NFL, teams don't go for it on 4th down often enough. Even the most innovative or bold of NFL teams, the Patriots, usually punt on 4th down.

But one football team, albeit a high school one, takes the numbers to heart. The Pulaski Academy Bruins, coached by Kevin Kelley, not only never punt on 4th down but also try for an onside kick on every kickoff (okay, they have punted four times in the past three seasons, I'm not sure what overcame him those four times).

Pulaski fans are accustomed to such play. Most enjoy the show, shake their heads and refer to the coach, Kevin Kelley, as a "mad scientist." But really, the coach isn't mad at all; his decisions are rooted not in whimsy or eccentricity but in cold, rational numbers. Ask him to defend his methods, and he revs up his Dell laptop and refers to his statistics.

Pulaski hasn't punted since 2007 (when it did so as a gesture of sportsmanship in a lopsided game), and here's why: "The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn't make sense to give up the ball," Kelley says. "Besides, if your offense knows it has four downs instead of three, it totally changes the game. I don't believe in punting and really can't ever see doing it again."

He means ever. Consider the most extreme scenario, say, fourth-and-long near your own end zone. According to Kelley's data (much of which came from a documentary he saw), when a team punts from that deep, the opponents will take possession inside the 40-yard line and will then score a touchdown 77% of the time. If they recover on downs inside the 10, they'll score a touchdown 92% of the time. "So [forsaking] a punt, you give your offense a chance to stay on the field. And if you miss, the odds of the other team scoring only increase 15 percent. It's like someone said, '[Punting] is what you do on fourth down,' and everyone did it without asking why."

The onside kicks? According to Kelley's figures, after a kickoff the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line. After a failed onside kick the team assumes possession at its 48. Through the years Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks. "So you're giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back," says Kelley. "I'll take that every time!" Why not attempt to return punts? "Especially in high school, where the punts don't go so far," he says, "it's not worth the risk of fumbling or a penalty."

Here's a video of Kelley talking about his no punt philosophy, and here's another over at Grantland with some video of their crazy onside kick formations. The results bear out the math. This season the Bruins won their conference again, outscoring the next highest scoring team in their conference by over 15 points per game.

As of yet, no college or NFL team has had the guts to try a similar strategy, though San Diego State made some noise about possibly going in this direction last season. The statistics for the NFL, while they might not support the exact same strategy as in high school or college football, still suggest more teams should go for it on 4th down and that more teams should try surprise onside kicks (the success rate of onside kicks in the NFL is 60% when the other team isn't expecting one). In so many situations in the NFL, the average punt only nets you 10 to 20 yards of field position, I would love to see some of the NFL's truly bad teams who are going to be underdogs in most games try a bolder strategy to increase the variance of their outcomes, just as any good underdog should.

NFL teams have dabbled with some of Kevin Kelley's tactics, but as with whether to hit on a 12 vs a 13 in blackjack, one should really just pick a strategy and commit to it. If your team knows it's going to go for it on 4th down, it can alter its play calls on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd down to ensure if it ends up in a short yardage situation when it does end up in 4th down. It also won't feel like such a tense situation when it does occur because it will be part of the team's regular strategy.

Curing sinusitis

7. Read every hippie-dippy, holistic, all-natural website and public forum Google could find.

8. Added Apple Cider Vinegar to my sinus rinse. Low point in treatment, maybe in entire life. Felt like death but really cleared my mucus out, at least for a while.

9. Eucalyptus oil in a steam bath. Opened sinuses, providing temporary relief, but didn't clear out the mucus.

10. Chopped up garlic cloves and put them in a steam bath. Similar experience to No. 9.

11. Started reading up on biofilms, the hard-to-kill little bacteria that encase the infection and make it resistant to antibiotics.

12. Convinced myself that, hey, I have that!

13. Looked into various methods of breaking down biofilm. The two most prominent solutions I found during my research (thanks, Internet!): Xylitol, which is a natural sugar substitute, and baby shampoo.

14. Bought some Xylitol spray at Whole Foods. It kind of worked. As soon as I used it, snot started draining down the back of my throat. I heard some snap and crackle up in my frontal sinuses, the ones above the eyes. Some of the pathways were peeling themselves open, and, joy!, air was flowing again.

15. But the snot demon ball in my face had not been fulling exorcised. In a late-night moment of desperation, I overcame my reservations (there's research!, I told myself). I put a teaspoon of Johnson & Johnson's Baby Shampoo into my sinus rinse, which also contained salt, baking soda, Xylitol and distilled water.

16. And it didn't hurt or feel uncomfortable in the slightest. In one nostril and out the other. Disconcerting and maybe a little hilarious: A bubbly brew started streaming out my nose after the rinse, and everything smelled like my early childhood.

17. I didn't notice anything at first, but, gradually, my sinuses started popping, and mucus flowed down the back of my throat in big gushes. The baby shampoo broke through. I baby shampoo-ed my sinuses for a few more days, and now I feel better than I've felt in several years.

How one person used self-experimentation to cure his sinusitis. Ingenuity borne of frustration.

In 2003 I had terrible sinusitis and went through a similar quest as he did, but mine ended differently. I went to an ENT doctor who gave me a CAT scan. Then, to my horror, he sat me down and then stuck a huge needle through the roof of my mouth and drained some fluid out of my sinus for analysis. It felt like someone was sucking my brains out from inside my skull.

It turned out I had a cyst in my sinus cavity, and after surgery (they cut through the roof of my mouth to remove it) and a week of drinking soup I was cured.

So before you go rinsing your sinus with a formula including baby shampoo, maybe see an ENT.

Liberals versus conservatives? Nope

Types A and B map reasonably well onto today’s culture wars, with A the modern/liberal and B the traditional/conservative. It maps well to the rich-poor axis from the World Value Survey.  But in fact, type A vs. B are actually foragers vs. farmers. [The above summarizes many books and articles I've read over the last year.]  Which is my point: I think a lot of today’s political disputes come down to a conflict between farmer and forager ways, with forager ways slowly and steadily winning out since the industrial revolution. It seems we acted like farmers when farming required that, but when richer we feel we can afford to revert to more natural-feeling forager ways. The main exceptions, like school and workplace domination and ranking, are required to generate industry-level wealth. We live a farmer lifestyle when poor, but prefer to buy a forager lifestyle when rich.

From a 2010 post by Robin Hanson. Click through to read the descriptions of Type A and Type B people.

From a later post by Hanson on the same topic:

Farming required huge behavior changes, mostly unnatural to foragers. A key enabler seems to have been increased self-control to follow social norms. But what allowed this increased self-control?

One source was moving from vague spirituality to religions with powerful and morally-outraged gods who punish norm violators. In addition (as I’ll explain tomorrow), high densities and larger social networks made stronger credible threats to ostracize folks for specific deviant acts.  Yes both these mechanisms require the fear that norm violations could lead to great harm, even death. But for poor farmers living on edge, such threats were easy to come by.

Interestingly, this death-threat pressure could work even without farmers being conscious of the relevant threats or fears. In fact, farming society probably worked better with homo hypocritus farmers, consciously denying that strong social pressures pushed them to do what would otherwise feel unnatural.

A large robust literature makes it clear that inducing people to unconsciously think about death pushes them to more strongly obey and defend cultural norms, especially norms framed as disgust at animal-like behavior.  Today, fear of death encourages folks to obey authorities, and be more loyal to their communities and spouses, all strong farmer norms.

Count me among the foragers, though until reading these posts I'd never call it that. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me the chance to live like a forager, I am blessed.

The farmer-forager dichotomy is like some variant of the Myers Briggs personality test.

The role of government in innovation

When it comes to productivity, there is one set of rules, which economists have worked on since Adam Smith. Innovation has a different set of rules. Most economists seem barely aware that the two sets of rules often clash — what is good for productivity is bad for innovation. Let me sketch a few of the innovation rules. Innovation needs freedom, of course, and the ability to profit from your invention, which I’ll call benefit. It is also called self-interest. The importance of benefit/self-interest for innovation is the main point of Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson. Innovation is also increased by resources, such as skills, knowledge, space, and equipment. After discussing this with Bryan Caplan, I believe many economists are well aware these three factors (freedom, benefit, resources) affect innovation. All three also increase productivity — for example, more resources, more productivity. Far fewer economists realize that two other things, which act against productivity, are also very helpful for innovation:

1. Pain. Not a lot — not debilitating or all-consuming pain — but enough to make you think hard. Necessity is the mother of invention is the aphorism, which isn’t quite right. Pain, not necessity. Government is useful here, as I said. So is war. Many innovations came from wars. A famous example is the greenback, which came from the Civil War.

2. Stability. To innovate, you need free time, which is different from freedom (ask any prisoner). Free time allows painless failure, very helpful for innovation. To have free time, you need a secure job. Government is useful here, too. So is tenure. Pain plus stability = peacetime military spending. The internet came from peacetime military spending. Professors were the first users. Stability also promotes innovation because it makes it easier to detect small improvements. The quieter it is, the better you can detect soft sounds.

More here from Seth Roberts. It's commonly accepted that constraints can spur creativity, but the idea of government as a useful irritant is not something I'd heard before. 

The tradeoff of freedom and pain with government plays out on a smaller scale with employees and companies. Early in your career, you run into more obstacles in a company given your generally lower position in the organization. Some of them are instructive, others are just friction or the usual coordination costs of an organization.

At some point, for some people, those costs become unbearable and they leave for a position higher up, where there are fewer obstacles, or they start their own company and trade one type of challenge for a different type.