The ideal society

It’s Japan. Okay, no. But Japan is close. I’m just discussing freedom in this post: public and private freedom. The ideal society has a high degree of private freedom and a low degree of public freedom. Here’s what I mean.

Public freedom

Places with a large degree of public freedom don’t have restrictive laws or social rules about what you can do in public. You can be loud. You can rub yourself against a willing participant. You can spit, smoke, eat, play music, block the street, shout, sing, drink, chew gum. You can go in public without showering first. Hell, in San Francisco you can even inject drugs, piss, masturbate and lay in the street moaning and screaming with few, if any repercussions. I don’t mind if you want to do these things: but do it in privacy. Find a refrigerator box, at least. No one else needs to see it.

Private freedom

In places with a large degree of private freedom, you can do whatever you want in your private life without legal intervention from the state or much in the way of social censure. In Japan, you can have your penis surgically removed, cook it, and feed it to a crowd, and it’s perfectly legal. In privately free places, you can have abortions, get married to someone of the same gender, have sex with a dead chicken and then eat it for dinner*. Whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t involve unwilling victims.

The ideal society

Now, you might think that it’s better to have a society that is free in both public and private spheres. But you’d be wrong. While I agree that government intervention isn’t effective for maintaining a pleasant public experience, places with less public freedom are more pleasant to live in. Think Singapore or Japan. In the latter, I get the feeling that the average person would rather cut off their own arm than get in someone’s way or annoy them in public. This is fantastic. It keeps us from living like lower animals. Imagine if no one was ever in your way. And no one ever made a scene in public unless they were actually dying. No one forces you to listen to their crap music on even worse phone speakers (because they’re doing it on public transit). No one tolerates whiny children. No sexual harassment in the streets. Everyone treats you as if you don’t exist and minimizes their own impact on everyone else.

Generally, people should care less about things that don’t affect them at all. Like what others do in private. In the United States, we care too much about what others do in private. Abortions, gay marriage, laws about what who we can feed our penis meat to…

The ideal is that no one draws anyone’s attention in a negative way. Everyone should live by this principle. It’s easy. In public:

  • Do not make any more noise than necessary
  • Be aware of others, and stay out of their way
  • Do not take up more space than necessary
  • Never be in public with children you cannot control
  • Never be in public smelling strongly of anything
  • Don’t smoke
  • Do not talk to strangers, especially not to sexually harass them

Even in places which are more publicly free, like San Francisco, you’ll find that those of a higher socio-economic status already tend to restrict themselves by the rules above. Maybe we can get someone who appeals to the masses to spread this ideal? Maybe the Kardashians can do a tutorial on how to behave in public?

* This was a real example given in one of my classes.

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Not so perfect

Ever heard a song and wish it were written in a different language so you could enjoy the melody in perfect ignorance of the lyrics? I feel that way about this song. Current goal: fix the lyrics. I’ll make it a song dedicated to an imaginary friend.

What’s wrong with the lyrics? They’re perfect for their intended purpose: appeal to the masses as a wedding song and make Ed Sheeran tons of money. I’m going to over-analyze them now though. For fun.

“‘Cause we were just kids when we fell in love / Not knowing what it was”

The latter clause is how I like to describe finding plastic detritus in my ramen. Or something that has been in my backpack for the entire school year and was edible once upon a time.

“your heart is all I own”

I was unaware that hearts could be owned. And I’m sure you own something. Like the pair of underpants you’re currently wearing. Makes that heart sound pretty worthless. “This pair of underpants is all I own. Please do not sue me.”

“And in your eyes you’re holding mine”

Holding my what? My heart? My eyes? Mon pantalon? Eyes have hands and hold things? Disturbing visual.

“Baby, I’m dancing in the dark with you between my arms”

Isn’t the phrase “dancing in the dark” a reference to depression? “Between my arms” makes me picture a hopping zombie with arms outstretched stiff and straight. Swaying back and forth with someone wedged between them. I guess I’d be depressed if my arms were stuck like that.

“listening to our favorite song”

Two distinct people have one favorite song? Or is it that both parties have well-ordered the set of all songs they know and identified the first song that appears on both lists? If so, that could be pretty bad. Like Pomp and Circumstance, or something.

“I found a love, to carry more than just my secrets
To carry love, to carry children of our own”

Thanks to this song, I learned that even men considered the epitome of gentleness and romance think of women as receptacles. In this case, for secrets, love and children. Also note the interesting characterization of both secrets and love as a burden, or something heavy that must be carried.

“Be my girl, I’ll be your man”

Is she Lolita? This line is bad enough without the lack of symmetry. A girl with a man is still illegal in most states.

“I don’t deserve this, darling, you look perfect tonight”

A few issues. “I don’t deserve this” is commonly used to mean “This is terrible, why me.” As in, “I have always looked both ways when crossing the street. I was hit by a truck out of nowhere. I don’t deserve this.” In the context of romance, it’s also commonly used as a “nice” letdown. “I am just a grub. All of this attention, it’s extreme. I don’t deserve this — I’m sure you’ll find someone who does deserve your love.”

I’d also like to know who does deserve someone who looks perfect? And once you’ve fulfilled the requirements do you apply for your perfect-looking partner at the DMV? It’s a weird concept. Like martyrs getting 72 virgins.

Both “look” and “tonight” are interesting choices. The implication being that the rest of the time, the object looks… who knows. Probably homeless. Not so perfect.

Goodbye Christopher Robin vs The Florida Project

Both of these movies are about how childhood can be both wonderful and dark. But the point of this post isn’t to review or contrast and compare. I’m just using this pair of movies as an example of why you shouldn’t let critics decide what you’ll enjoy.

As of the time of writing, Goodbye Christopher Robin has a 63% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 7.2 on IMDB. The Florida Project has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.1 on IMDB. I watched both movies in theaters anyway. I liked Goodbye Christopher Robin better.

So, what does it all mean? Don’t trust critics? No, not exactly. If you read the reviews, pay attention to what the critics liked and dislike, and figure out whether you value the same things. Most of the reviews for The Florida Project rave about the actress who plays Moonee — how mesmerizing and authentic a performance she gave. Sure, I was convinced that she was an average 6 year old girl, but “authenticity” isn’t that important to me in a movie. If I want to see regular 6 year olds just be themselves, I can watch real children. I prefer my movies to have an interesting narrative or story arc, which The Florida Project lacked. It painted a bleak picture and did so the long way, leaving me wondering if the director was trying to show how bored the kids were by making the audience bored too.

On the other hand, critics who disliked Goodbye Christopher Robin mentioned how unlikable his parents were, or how the movie was a stiff period piece. But those things are the point: his parents aren’t sympathetic characters, and the historical context was important to the story. I love a good period piece. I like being transported somewhere that’s far removed from my everyday life. Somewhere with interesting characters who have complex motivations, not just “authenticity.”

In general, I think film critics are overly fond of the French style of movie making: so many pointless scenes of walking down the street, sleeping, eating spaghetti, shaving and staring off into space that it feels like your own real life. And then a sudden ending when the funding has run out — not at any natural stopping point in the story. Knowing this about critics, and understanding that these aren’t my own preferences, it makes sense for me to ignore ratings and just give movies a chance based on the trailer or summary. I’m guessing this is true for most people: that your tastes don’t line up with what the critics say. It almost makes me wonder why we even have them? I guess it made more sense for a time before Moviepass. Well, you don’t have to listen to them now — you can make up your own mind: it’s the same monthly price whether you watch one or both!

But, it’s not even price gouging…

I saw an article posted on social media that was churning the outrage machine. Perhaps you saw it too? The one about Best Buy charging $40 for a case of water. While there are some who would defend price gouging from an economics perspective, I’m not even going to do that. What happened at Best Buy is not an example of price gouging and should not inflame anyone who reads the entire article and knows basic definitions.

First, what happened? Best Buy doesn’t sell cases of water. But an employee realized there might be demand for entire cases, so he took the single bottle price and multiplied it by the number of bottles in the case to arrive at a case price. That would work out to $2.50 for a single bottle of Smart Water, or $1.79 for a single bottle of Aquafina. These are standard Best Buy prices. In Texas, price gouging is defined as “Selling or leasing fuel, food, medicine or another necessity at an exorbitant or excessive price” (taken from the Texas AG’s site). That is vague. Certainly, some may find $1.79-2.50 for a bottle of water “excessive” — it isn’t the cheapest bottled water I’ve seen. But the way of determining price gouging appears to involve examining whether prices in the “declared disaster area spike beyond what the normal market forces set.” Indicating that price gouging does require a raising of prices. Which Best Buy simply didn’t do.

The upsetting thing about people not reading is that this article has been a vehicle for virtue signaling. Anyone who argues with the premise that this is an outrageous example of corporate greed is derided as immoral, callous, or a capitalist.

If we buy the narrative that this was price gouging and someone was taking advantage of vulnerable people during a natural disaster (despite the previous discussion of the meaning of the term “price gouging”) then we have to ask ourselves “which greedy entity profited here?” The employee? Best Buy, unfortunately, doesn’t have a commission scale, so the employee who did the pricing didn’t see any profit. The pricing wasn’t done by or condoned by Best Buy corporate, so that’s out too. Looks like we don’t have a villain here.

Another relevant question: who was the victim? Did someone die because Best Buy wasn’t giving out water for free? Who goes to Best Buy to buy water, anyway?

So where is the outrage coming from? Is it really our mentality that enduring a natural disaster makes us entitled to bulk discounts on water from the electronics store? Unfortunately, it seems that what sells these days is outrage. If an article helps the reader feel moral outrage (and thus, morally superior), then they’ll click, share, vent, and really… what more could an advertiser ask for. Don’t be pawns. Save your outrage for something that matters.

Tidal: why Jay-Z and Taylor Swift are wrong

Jay-Z, along with Madonna, Kanye West and other thoroughly cringeworthy big names in music have launched Tidal, ostensibly to protect music, musicians, art. But this Instagram post from Madonna is telling. She says, in part

And remember nothing is for free! This is a universal LAW. Somewhere-Somehow-Someone has to pay.

Let’s not forget that this is also the woman who compares an album leak to rape and terrorism. How could such a person possibly be wrong about the future of music? I guess she’s in pretty good company though, as Taylor Swift (who is also on Tidal) pulled all her music from Spotify, saying

Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.

But she and other artists who believe they’re being paid too little under the streaming model are wrong. Here’s why.

1. No one else gets paid forever for work they did once

Art is indeed valuable. No one is contesting that. But isn’t everything valuable? Nursing care, doctors, teachers, the guy who painted your house. The software engineers that make Google work, or the ones who maintain Wikipedia. All of their work is valuable. But does the engineer who wrote part of Google’s search code get paid $0.0006 every time someone does a Google search? Does the guy who installed your toilet get paid every time you flush it? Even if their work continues to be of value, even if there’s a measurable way in which it’s being used, most people do not get paid forever for work that they did once. What millionaire musicians don’t seem to realize is that they already enjoy a position of great privilege in the royalty system and they should be more grateful. It’s easy to understand why they aren’t: they see that Spotify pays 70% to the recording companies, which leaves a smaller share to them. But the answer is not charging the end user more money.

2. Making streaming more expensive will not increase revenues

The same applies to making streaming more difficult. If someone wants a playlist with all their favorite artists, but the artists each have exclusive contracts with five different streaming services, it makes life difficult. If streaming costs $20 per month, it makes the service less attractive. In fact, according to data analysis done by David Touve of the University of Virginia, the price of streaming that will maximize revenues is around $6/month.

3. Lost album sales is the wrong way of looking at things

Musicians just need to forget about the glory days when buying a CD or waiting around for the song to play on the radio were the only ways for a fan to consume their music. The metric of “lost album sales” is misleading. There’s no evidence that if pirating and streaming weren’t options, those fans would all be paying for albums.

4. The only way to increase revenue is to increase value

It should be fairly obvious that free or nearly free streaming and pirating are here to stay. It should also be obvious by now that fighting these (with encryption, lawsuits, shutting down sites like The Pirate Bay) are a temporary stopgap at best. If it’s easy to get free music, the only way to convince people to keep paying a premium price for it, whether via album sales or costlier streaming services, is to offer them something extra. Tidal claims it offers some exclusive content, but I think they’ll have to do better. Promotions like “buy this album and be entered for a chance to win a dinner with this artist” or “subscribe for N months and you can qualify to get these limited edition items” — things that freemium streaming and pirating don’t and can’t offer.

I’ll end with simple armchair psychology. If musicians alienate their fans by complaining that an estimated $6 million per year earned from Spotify is too little, fans will be less likely to care about “hurting the artist” by pirating.

In defense of harsher sentencing for crack

(versus powder cocaine)

It isn’t the least bit about race. Crack cocaine dealers have the same access to information about mandatory minimum sentences as anyone else, and if they choose to pursue a life of drug dealing, they can just as well switch to dealing powder cocaine. If a disproportionate number of blacks happen to continue choosing to deal one over the other, we’ll have to conclude either ignorance or stupidity.

Here’s why longer sentences for crack dealers is good: they deal in public. On street corners. Probably on the corner of a street where I used to live. One day I actually exited my building to see a body — someone who had been shot in the head on the (suspected) drug corner. That could’ve been anyone. In fact, it’s much more likely to be someone completely uninvolved because it’s in public.

I don’t really care if a drug dealer is going to someone’s upper east side apartment to deliver powder cocaine. Or their high rise office building. That’s a private transaction that has no bearing on me, and even if that drug user loses his job, his children probably won’t be the state’s problem. He’s probably not going to rob anyone. All that will happen is that he’ll get to go to an expensive rehab a few times. Not the same as when a highly addictive drug is popular among the poor: that increases everyone’s problems — the taxpayer (in the form of welfare, emergency room fees for the uninsured, food stamps, extra policing), the neighbor (armed robbery, burglaries), and even the random person walking in the street (muggings, gun violence/turf wars).

Mostly, I’m just tired of hearing this differential in sentencing trotted out as an example of racism in the legal system. Even if we ignore every point I just made, it still remains true that there was significant support from black leadership to enact these stricter sentencing laws.

Ferguson: more irresponsible reporting

I just read the NYT editorial on the Ferguson riots. Without doing their own fact checking, they quoted a “grim report by ProPublica” which claims that young black men are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men.

That report is grim mostly for its failure to link original sources and its tenuous grasp on basic statistics. Let me attempt to improve on it. Their statement that young black males were 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men relies on numbers which they do not cite a specific source for. “Federally collected date on fatal police shootings” is as close as we get. In my own research, I have used the CDC Fatal Injury Reports. From the ProPublica report:

The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.

I’ve found a few issues with this statement.

1. According to the CDC data, there have been 1,454 deaths caused by police between 2010 and 2012, not 1,217 (excluding females, the number is 1,402). Additionally, that is the number for all ages, so it seems irrelevant if we’re discussing deaths of those aged 15-19: that number is 81 (79 if we restrict to males).

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.42.22 AM2. It is unclear from the above statement whether they are comparing all blacks age 15 to 19 to white males of the same age range, or if they’re comparing only males to males. I assume the latter because it makes more sense. In that case, the CDC website shows that blacks were killed at a rate of 6.6 per million, and whites at 1.5 per million.

3. That would make the relative risk 4.4 times as high, not 21.

I’m not sure how they reached the 21x figure, but I attempted to re-create this figure by selecting “homicide and legal intervention” for males age 15-19, but that gave a relative rate of 8.4. Then I tried that again, with males of all ages, and that gave a relative rate of 7. I welcome the authors of the ProPublica report to point me to the original sources from which they derived their relative rate of 21.

Conclusions drawn from this report seem to be unvaryingly of one flavor: we suffer from a problem of racist policing. However, here’s another interesting chart from the CDC data

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.47.52 AM

It’s the same data, but including males of all ages. Here, the black males seem to face twice the risk of white males of death by cop. But if we glance down a bit further, white males are at about twice the risk of Asian males. If we are to conclude, like the NYT article did, that

“These statistics reflect the fact that many police officers see black men as expendable figures on the urban landscape, not quite human beings”

Then I suppose we’ll have to conclude that police officers also see white men as expendable compared to Asian men. Or that the justice system was set up to benefit Asian men. Asian privilege? But if not, if these conclusions sound absurd, then might there also be room at the other end of the spectrum for more reasonable and less racially divisive conclusions? Any speculation you can give about why Asian men are at lower risk than white men should sound also reasonable when you apply it to whites versus blacks. Try that before saying what’s expected of you.

You could also read the grand jury testimony to get the full picture. Or, if you still believe this is an issue of racial privilege, I dare any white male to punch a police officer, attempt to take his gun, then charge him. I want proof that white privilege would have kept Michael Brown alive or seen to the prosecution of his killer. Show me.

Update: Looks like some people agree and ProPublica has had to print a defense of the original report.

Here’s an analysis similar to mine on a cop blog.

Now, if only NYT and other news sites would stop quoting the “21 times more likely” statistic as if it were the gospel truth.